Cllr Philippa Roe is the Leader of Westminster City Council
Finally, after months of campaigning, voters in Scotland decided at the ballot box whether to remain part of the United Kingdom or to choose independence. I am glad that they have chosen to continue the three hundred year old union between our nations.
That referendum, however, has brought to the fore some wider and no less profound constitutional questions. In the coming weeks, and during Conservative Party Conference, they demand an ambitious response.
It would be a missed opportunity to look only at the technical issues around the West Lothian Question, while failing to recognise the underlying desire for greater control and more effective decision making in England. ‘English votes for English laws’ or a new ‘English Parliament’ would both still leave decision-making in Whitehall, no less remote from the communities affected.
To be meaningful, devolution must be at a scale that can create new, better approaches to the big issues that define the economic and social backbone of the country. Modernising our transport infrastructure, developing a skilled workforce, delivering much-needed housing, helping long term unemployed people and families with complex issues, supporting long-term unemployed people and families with complex issues to overcome barriers, caring for our aging population, keeping the lights on while reducing our environmental impact – the ingredients for success are found within places, not in national silos.
Westminster, alongside others including London Councils and the Core Cities such as Greater Manchester, has spent several years driving forward a devolution agenda that would see local areas take on greater responsibility and powers over the issues that most affect their residents, communities and economies. Most recently, we have been closely involved in developing new approaches to supporting long-term unemployed people with health conditions in central London as part of the London Growth Deal.
The pace of the debate has sometimes been disappointing – but the moment for change has truly arrived. Now is the time for a radical devolution of responsibility to London. The capital needs to be able to retain and invest more of the economic rewards arising from the work of local government partners in driving higher economic growth and reforming public services to increase resilience and reduce dependency.
The current relationship between local and central government compares to having your first ever current account, topped up occasionally by the bank of mum and dad. Instead, if we mean business about addressing London’s challenges and opportunities, we need a ‘business account’ to match, including the powers and responsibility to share risk and reward, leverage London’s assets and revenue streams more effectively, and plan ahead with certainty over the course of a Parliament so that we can deliver real change at a lower cost.
London is the country’s economic engine, and this is not a zero sum game – research suggests that firms use London as a gateway to creating employment in the rest of the UK, while central London office development generates almost twice as much GVA and 80 per cent more jobs outside London as it does within the capital. Yet London also contains some of the country’s most deprived areas, and London’s local government has seen core funding reduce by 25 per cent since 2013. To meet the challenges faced by Londoners, we need the flexibility to innovate, both to drive sustainable growth in the capital and to share the fruits of the capital’s thriving economy more widely. The UK depends on it.
We’re not asking for a credit card – just credit where it’s due. Local government has a tremendous track record for innovation in the face of the need to make savings. The Tri-borough of Westminster, Hammersmith and Fulham and Kensington and Chelsea has become a well-known example of saving money in back-office functions and improving services for residents.
Building on our track record, we have set out a three point plan of key issues where greater control for London would make an immediate difference to millions of people:
- Welfare to work: After several years of the Work Programme, the Government accepts the need for a fresh approach to supporting the longest term unemployed and those with the biggest barriers to employment. One size simply does not fit all – what works in Newcastle might not work in London. We need a local approach to get people into work. Ambitious work on local pilot schemes currently being developed as part of the London Growth Deal must, if successful, translate into real commitment to devolve commissioning responsibilities, funding and control and to share the rewards of success with local areas.
- Skills and education: by accepting central management and arcane funding formulae in our skills system, we risk holding London back. Why should the bright young things in the capital’s burgeoning tech industry, for example, wait for a civil servant in a dusty Whitehall office to sanction funding for courses that provide the workforce they need? London needs the ability to incentivise skills providers to meet employer demand in London’s growth sectors, helping people to gain the skills they need to get into and progress in the right jobs for them. London moves fast, it needs that flexibility.
- Health and social care: the challenge of bringing together the two seemingly monolithic establishments of acute health provision and social care is well recognised but depends on local vision and clout to translate into reality. The Better Care Fund is a good start, but needs to be managed locally; longer term, a single locally financed system can underpin the shift we need towards preventative measures and away from costly treatments in A&E.
There is no doubting that the Scottish referendum has helped rejuvenate the devolution debate, moving away from dry constitutional parleying to a passionate, wide-ranging debate which gripped all parts of our united nation. But, if we are to continue this momentum and see real change, it is critical issues like these that must define it – and that means giving serious attention to the abilities, challenges and ambition of our great cities.