Call for Yorkshire to follow Scots path to power

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles
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A ROYAL Commission should decide “once and for all” how the region should take more control over its own affairs following the example of Scottish and Welsh devolution, according to a Yorkshire council.

York Council argues that a commission would end the debate over where power should lie as Yorkshire councils make fresh calls for the region to have a much bigger say in how taxes are raised and spent.

And in a separate report published today, Leeds MP Hilary Benn, the Shadow Local Government Secretary, argues there is “unfinished business” following devolution to Scotland and Wales under the last Labour government and calls for a “New English deal”.

The Welsh Assembly is on track to receive new powers, including the ability to vary income tax, following a report by the Silk Commission last year while Holyrood will be given significant freedoms on tax and borrowing following the findings of the Calman Commission.

MPs on the Communities and Local Government Select Committee are looking into what financial powers could be devolved from London and York is asking them to recommend the creation of a Royal Commission on the relationship between Whitehall and councils.

Council leader James Alexander said: “To get real devolution of powers and responsibilities we need to rebalance where tax is raised, from national to local. This isn’t politics, it makes economic sense.

“It means that more local taxes can be spent directly on local priorities. It would enable the country to retain a tax regime that is internationally competitive, whilst ensuring the tax burden on already hard-pressed families does not increase.

“So, as Scotland had with the Calman Commission and Wales had with the Silk Commission, local government in England needs to address this formally once and for all. We need an independent Royal Commission – or similar body – who can break central Governments stranglehold on this issue.”

In its submission to the select committee, Leeds City Council has called for local authorities to be able to keep all the business rates they collect and a share of national insurance or income tax so they benefit from efforts to create jobs alongside the scrapping of the limit on council tax rises.

Writing in today’s report from the Smith Institute thinktank, Leeds City Council leader Keith Wakefield says the Government has made only “partial” progress in giving cities genuine powers and warns Leeds still lacks the “complete set of tools” it requires to create the jobs and skills needed in the local economy.

In the same report, Mr Benn promises that a future Labour government would make “a decisive move in the direction of localism”.

“While the last Labour government devolved to Wales and Scotland, England remained largely unreformed. This is unfinished business, and while there isn’t public appetite for another tier of elected politicians, there is a justified sense that too much power is hoarded in Whitehall,” he says.

But appearing before the select committee last night to answer questions about the work of his department, Mr Benn’s opposite number, Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles, insisted local councils already have “a high degree of autonomy” – and suggested many use their powers unwisely when trying to cut spending.

“Local authorities want to have a high degree of autonomy – they have a high degree of autonomy,” the former Bradford Council leader said. “But sometimes (with) local choices, people make bad choices.”

Under questioning about the devastating cuts to local services many councils have been forced to make, after losing more than a third of their budgets since 2010, Mr Pickles said no authority should be reducing services that will impact upon the most vulnerable members of society.

“Local authorities have an obligation to protect the most vulnerable,” he said, when asked about authorities cutting key services to the disabled, homeless or those at risk from violent partners.

“I have to say as an ex-council leader, there is no way I would cut women’s hostels. There’s no way I would do that.”

Mr Pickles even accused council leaders directly of using him as a scapegoat for the tough decisions they make.

“Sometimes I do think there are some authorities that take almost a perverse pleasure in saying ‘it’s nothing to do with me, it’s that Pickles fellow – he’s taken all this money away’,” he said.

“I actually think (most) local authorities have done very well, have managed to take this reduction.

“And after all, It would be disingenuous to suggest that were another political party making these decisions, that the level of reduction wouldn’t have been similar.”

The Tory Minister dismissed concerns that the latest cuts to local government funding have hit Northern cities hardest.

“As we started out this process, the 10 most prosperous places in the country received the smallest grant – and that’s still the case,” he said. “The 10 most-deprived places in the country received the largest grant – and that remains the same. The size (of the cuts) are proportionate.”

He also defended the £10m he has offered to rural councils to help make up the historic shortfall in funding they receive compared with urban areas – dismissed by campaigners as “chicken feed”.

Mr Pickles said he was passionate about helping to redress the balance, but added: “We have to be really clear that the level of difficulty that, say, my old stomping ground of Bradford has, is a little different from some of the rural villages in Suffolk.”