Caroline Pidgeon writes… Power to the people – why conference paper has my backing

Last July I wrote a piece for Lib Dem Voice about devolving powers to London and other large cities. My article was drawing attention to a report published last summer called Raising the Capital (pdf). This report had been produced by the London Finance Commission, an authoritative and wide ranging group of experts from both inside and outside politics, and crucially including experts from Birmingham and Manchester and chaired by the highly respected Professor Travers of the London School of Economics.

The report highlighted that barely seven per cent of all the tax paid by London residents and businesses is directly retained by the Mayor and the boroughs. The equivalent figure in New York is over 50 per cent. Similar comparisons can be made between London and world cities such as Madrid, Paris and Berlin. Such immense centralisation of tax revenues is not good for London, nor is such centralisation good for any large city.

I am pleased to say that since my article for Lib Dem Voice a great deal of policy work has been done by the party and at our Spring Conference an excellent policy document called Power to the People (pdf) will now be set for debate.

The paper contains a number of constitutional changes, stretching from votes for 16 and 17 year olds; open lists for elections to the European Parliament; changes to the ways petitions are presented at Westminster; greater publication of Government data and far more publication of information about meetings held between lobbyists and Special Advisers. The paper even contains the radical idea of allowing candidates to stand for Westminster on a job-share basis.

However, what I would specifically like to highlight is the proposals for greater devolution. The paper rightly advocates greater fiscal powers for the National Assembly for Wales, as well as clarifying the powers of the Northern Ireland Assembly. But rightly so the paper also endorses greater devolution within England, but in a practical and most importantly flexible way, recognising that the structures, needs and powers required differ in different parts of the country.

The attempt by the last Labour Government in creating English devolution failed – beyond rather timid devolution in London – as their initiatives were shallow, artificial and top-down. In complete contrast Power to the People advocates a ‘bottom-up’ solution to the English Question.

What this paper wisely advocates is an English Devolution Enabling Act, whereby full devolution in principle is available to Cornwall and to London (which has no fiscal powers at present greater than a local authority), but also to any principal local authority, or group of principal local authorities outside of London which has a population of a million or more . The authority or authorities acting together then constitute a legislative assembly. Possible examples could be Yorkshire or Birmingham.

There is so much more that can be said about these proposals which simply can’t be covered in one article in Lib Dem Voice, but at this stage I would merely say that these proposals manage to combine being both visionary as well as realistic. Before heading off to York for our Spring Conference please take a careful look at the paper.

I truly believe the proposals would be good for Cornwall and London, but also Birmingham or Yorkshire, if that is what local people wanted.

Devolving power is something Liberal Democrats have long advocated. While the year 2014 will understandably be dominated by the Scottish independence referendum let’s ensure that nationalists do not hijack the debate about how we can truly empower people across the whole of the UK. Let’s give communities everywhere the power to take control of their neighbourhoods backed by the finance needed.

* Caroline Pidgeon is the Liberal Democrat London Assembly Member and chair of the London Assembly Transport Committee

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12 Comments

  • Eddie Sammon 21st Feb '14 - 12:19pm

    Hi Caroline, thanks for the article. However, I’m going to give a pretty damning verdict. First of all, Liberal Democrats are engaging in miss-selling by proposing to increase risk to the economy without saying so, these are the downsides of devolution that people need to be made aware of.

    Second of all, I wouldn’t care so much about miss-selling if it wasn’t for one rule for business and another for politicians.

    Thirdly, there appears to be no mention about breaking up of the European single market. People cannot have their cake and eat it – we can’t say things like “devolution whilst keeping in tact the single market” – you can have one or the other.

    Regards

  • Eddie Sammon: it is hardly a damning judgement if you fail to provide justification for your alleged “risk to the economy”. The only specific issue you raise is, bizarrely, the Single Market, indicating that you have little grasp of what this is about. Apart from devolved government or empowered local/regional government being able to be more responsive to the needs of the local economy, this has little to do with the Single Market.

    You might like to look at how much more power regional government has in Germany and reflect on whether the German economy has been harmed or not; and while you are at it you could check whether their regional governments is causing the Single Market to break up.

  • Eddie Sammon 21st Feb '14 - 12:49pm

    Well Martin, the idea that I don’t know what the single market is is ridiculous. Politicians do not have a monopoly on the use of the word “single market” – whenever you have more variation in laws it makes business more difficult to do – sometimes substantially difficult to the point where businesses are trapped into certain regions.

    The benefits of devolution is of course better law making. However we need to consider both the pros (localism) and the costs (complication). My harsh criticism is because like so many other politicians I see now cons highlighted as well as the pros, a rule they make financial services abide by, which I agree with, but they don’t even follow the same principles themselves.

  • Eddie Sammon 21st Feb '14 - 12:51pm

    No cons highlighted with the pros I mean. This resentment is self-inflicted on the politicians for not making the laws they write apply to them.

  • Eddie Sammon 21st Feb '14 - 1:01pm

    I’m not discussing this anymore. Probably to people’s relief. Have a nice day.

  • Eddie Sammon 21st Feb '14 - 1:21pm

    You know what annoys me even more, I feel that I can’t even criticise a woman without facing accusations of sexism and bullying. The Lib Dems are not a place that is making me happy, and probs why I am best staying out.

    Best wishes and personal love to all.

  • Eh?

  • Malcolm Todd 21st Feb '14 - 2:14pm

    Have you got your threads tangled, Eddie?

  • “The report highlighted that barely seven per cent of all the tax paid by London residents and businesses is directly retained by the Mayor and the boroughs”

    And the point is what exactly? Is London suffering from a chronic lack of investment? Council taxes are too high – laughable given many are at levels that are significantly lower than charged in other parts of the country?

    Yes the Treasury is overly dependent upon London and specifically the financial services sector, that is one reason why the banking crisis had such a big impact on government finances. But that is a different problem to the amount of tax that gets retained by London and the devolution of power to the London Assembly.

  • Sadie Smith 21st Feb '14 - 2:31pm

    Um. Well I would not support any more power to London until the rest is sorted out.
    The main reason Labour devolution failed was that it was a miserable offer. The West Midlands is larmge in population terms but ppl only remember Birmingham. The old WMCC did a good job, but only for the urban centre. It would be more coherent to have a region wide Authority. We have tried working together and have had some success. Westminster didn’t like our voluntary efforts.. But we did prove that it was possible to work together, provided we had a reasonably sized Assembly so that all parts are reflected, including places like N.Staffs and Ludlow.
    . I am not cheered by the idea of sticking Councils together. The inter-Council politics would be dreadful..
    Happy to see the Cornwall suggestion.
    Getting the Regions of England right is really important.

  • Eddie Sammon 21st Feb '14 - 4:00pm

    I feel much better now. A few things about the article and the way I reacted to it set off a mini mental meltdown. I will try to be less sharp with my tongue regardless, but an objective analysis followed by a recommendation really helps to make the sale.

    Regards

  • Eddie Sammon 22nd Feb '14 - 9:38am

    I forgot to say a word: sorry for going over the top with my criticism. Academically, I would like to tackle Martin’s point about regional government benefiting Germany. I think the cause of the lack of jobs and businesses outside of the South East is due to all of the national institutions in London, which causes brain and investment drain.

    Regional devolution can also have some perverse side effects for the regions. It could raise barriers to entry for investment into the regions and mean that regions that are unable to compete with London actually do worse than they are now. This is due to law variations meaning regions outside of the South East will fall further down the investors priority list.

    Regards

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