Chief civil servant tells of his passion for local power

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THE head of the civil service has spoken of his “passion for devolving power to a local level” during a visit to Leeds, as Yorkshire’s cities continue to lobby Whitehall in the wake of the Government’s failed mayors policy.

Sir Bob Kerslake was visiting civil servants in the region as they battle budget cuts, pay freezes and pension reforms.

The former chief executive of Sheffield City Council is also permanent secretary to the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG), which had pledged devolved powers to cities which voted Yes in a referendum for elected mayors. However, out of 10 cities only Bristol backed the policy.

Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Sheffield, Wakefield, Coventry, Leeds and Bradford voted “no” to the idea, championed by Ministers.

The result has left leaders in Leeds and Sheffield demanding the Government still devolves powers and additional funding to help tackle the economic crisis and North-South divide.

Sir Bob, who visited a regional Job Centre Plus before travelling to speak to staff in the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Health, and the regional DCLG offices, said initiatives like the £500m Growing Places Fund would help local communities.

“I haven’t changed my position on devolution to local leadership – in very challenging economic times powerful local leadership of business and local authorities is crucial,” he said.

“We want to give people the tools to do that effectively like the Growing Places Fund and the engagement with Leeds, Sheffield and other cities on the city deals programme.

“A place like Leeds is so important to the economy of the North, we have got to get this right.”

The Government is also overseeing major cuts to civil service budgets, with more than a quarter of the 3,700 senior civil servants employed at the time of the last election having left.

Staff have also taken part in a series of strikes over pensions.

Sir Bob said: “I’ve been here meeting the civil servants in Leeds to find out what they are doing and what issues they are facing.

“They were very positive actually – clearly they have felt the impact of the pay freeze and the pensions reforms, but there was a complete focus on providing a complete service and on how we can do things better.

“I hope they can take quite a lot of reassurance from the changes that have already been delivered – the bulk of which have been achieved by reductions on a voluntary basis. I am pretty confident we can carry on delivering in that way. We have also tried to be open about the changes so people know what is coming.”