Devolution calls grow as funding raw deal revealed

KEITH WAKEFIELD: We should have one single department to dealt with says council leader.
KEITH WAKEFIELD: We should have one single department to dealt with says council leader.
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YORKSHIRE councils are suffering a raw deal on funding compared with their Scottish counterparts according to a new analysis which will add fresh weight to demands for a fresh look at English devolution.

Key local government figures are calling for a radical overhaul in the way English councils are funded which could include the abolition of several Whitehall departments.

The figures seen by the Yorkshire Post suggest that for the current financial year, English councils are receiving some £681 per head from Whitehall for locally controlled services while the Scottish government is giving councils north of the border around £1,129.

And as Yorkshire councils prepare to start the process of setting their budgets for next year, which will again see millions of pounds cut from services, it suggests Scottish local authorities have experienced funding reductions of just 6.5 per cent since 2010 compared with close to 20 per cent in England.

The groups of councils known as the Leeds and Sheffield city regions have each agreed City Deals with Ministers, increasing local control of funding previously spent by government departments, and Humber authorities are in discussions over a similar agreement.

But pressure is growing for a more significant shift which would see English councils receive their money from a single England Office in a similar way to the devolved administrations deal with Whitehall.

Keith Wakefield, leader of Leeds City Council, said: “I think these figures make an overwhelming case that the Department for Communities and Local Government should go and we should have one single department to deal with in the same way as Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

“The current constitutional arrangements for English local authorities are much weaker than for the devolved nations. At the moment, one government department doesn’t know what the other is doing and we don’t really get to pull all the arguments together. We had to speak to ten different government departments just to agree the City Deal.

“If it is true that we are supposed to be working closer with the health service, with the police and other agencies then rather than having different departments working against each other we should have a single England Office which speaks with a single voice and with which we can have a single conversation.

“They should be saying ‘here’s your budget, here’s what we expect in terms of outcomes’ and then leave us to decide how to achieve them.”

Yorkshire councils have cut their budgets by around one third since 2011 and recent spending plans set out by Chancellor George Osborne will see reductions continue until at least the end of 2016.

Council leaders are increasingly arguing that funding local authorities in a similar way to devolved administrations would remove the need for several Government departments and make local services more efficient.

Sir Merrick Cockell, chairman of the Local Government Association, said: “Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland already have a significant say over everything from health services to public transport, yet England’s communities are still battling for the same freedoms.

“We want to ensure that all parts of the United Kingdom are equally represented. English communities deserve a fair deal. The absence of a Secretary of State for England, whose job it is to fight in the Cabinet room on their behalf, means they are currently not getting one.”

The coming months will see councils set out their budget plans and consequently council tax bills for next year.