National review needed on devolution

Lord  Haskins.
Lord Haskins.
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A PEER has called for a national review into the Chancellor’s ‘devolution revolution’ as councils reject proposals across the country.

Lord Haskins has said an economic and political overview involving the voice of business is now essential after deals in the East of England and North East have been left hanging by a thread.

In a week marred by a Budget u-turn on disabled welfare cuts, George Osborne is facing further embarrassment as his announcement of ‘a single powerful East Anglia combined authority’ with £1bn spending power crumbled within days as Cambridgeshire County Council pulled out.

Meanwhile a well advanced deal in the North East is also in jeopardy as Gateshead Council voted to reject plans to oversee £30m a year spending from Whitehall.

With devolution still to come to North Yorkshire, West Yorkshire and the East Riding, cross-bencher Lord Haskins said the current agreements are ‘piecemeal deals on the run’.

“We need somebody to step back and look at it. A two or three year view of it all. These deals are on the run and they are going to end up looking very messy,” said Lord Haskins, who chairs the Humber Local Enterprise Partnership and is in favour of the Greater Yorkshire proposal covering the greatest geographical area.

“I’m a great believer in devolution, I really believe breaking things down and getting away from London is a critical thing but it’s not being done smoothly.

“The Treasury is looking at the whole thing as an economic exercise...and the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) is saying we have got to have a system that embraces everybody. The politics of the DCLG is right and the economics of the Treasury is right but they are clashing,” he said.

Like Lord Heseltine, Lord Haskins wants a review similar to the one carried out by John Redcliffe-Maud and a team of ten civil servants in 1969.

This three year study came up with a plan that ripped up 19th century local council boundaries and replaced them with 58 new unitary authorities based on major towns, and three metropolitan areas. Lord Redcliffe-Maud said towns and countryside were interdependent so they should come under one authority.

The plan was adopted by Labour’s Harold Wilson and a White Paper produced but it was rejected by the Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath when he came to power and instead implemented their own plan in 1972 of two-tier metropolitan and non-metropolitan counties and district councils.

On East England’s now ailing bumper deal that involves 22 councils, Lord Haskins said the Government was rushing it through, and he also has concerns about how quickly Greater Lincolnshire’s deal progressed and whether the folk of Grimsby will connect with those in Boston and Spalding in choosing a directly elected mayor.

Democratic credibility of this top devolution post-holder would be eroded if they are in charge of ‘cobbled together areas’, he added.

“From a business perspective, you wouldn’t want to do things impetuously.

“I would love to see a strategy behind it,” he said.

The life peer, who was the chairman of Northern Foods and later acted as ‘rural tsar’ for Tony Blair during the foot and mouth crisis said a national review must hear more forcefully from the business sector as the economic focus of George Osborne’s whole project is now diminishing.

He said: “The main purpose of devolution is economic development. I believe in that but the debate between the politicians both nationally and locally has not been about economics, which has taken second place. It’s been about who sits where.

“Big business has become terribly centralised. Forty years ago in Yorkshire we had seven or eight big FTSE 100 companies, but they have all flocked to London. This huge over-centralisation, economically and politically needs to be looked at in detail, with a strategic review.”