Liverpool’s famous Pier Head at the Heart of the City Region
110,000 people work in Liverpool City Centre. Of those just 55,000 live in the administrative area that we know as Liverpool City Council. If you are one of the 1,650,000 people who live in the Liverpool City Region it doesn’t matter whether you live inside Liverpool, St Helens, Sefton, Halton, Wirral or Knowsley Liverpool is where you come for your big shop, to go to the theatre, to go to a museum, to take part in big cultural events etc. etc. etc.
If you read this at or before the Liverpool Spring Conference 2015 think about the fact that a major facility like an Arena and Conference Centre is only viable in the City but it needs support from far wider afield. It works because as well as a conference venue there are shops, museums, hotels and restaurants in addition to the facility itself.
Perhaps you live in Bootle, You may live in either Sefton or Liverpool Councils. Say you live in Dovecot, You may live in Liverpool or Knowsley. Perhaps you live in Halewood is that Liverpool Halewood or Knowsley Halewood? The fact is that to most people the administrative boundaries under which we operate are meaningless. They live where they want to live and work and enjoy themselves where it is the most convenient for them.
The UK is almost unique in not recognising this. In the rest of the World almost every conurbation has a big strategic council and smaller delivery councils. From Istanbul to Mexico City from Paris to New Delhi this is a standard pattern. Indeed for a few years it was a pattern in the UK. From councils like Strathclyde and Lothian in Scotland to the 6 Metropolitan Counties of England there was an acceptance that conurbations hung together and should work and plan together. All this was abolished by the Tories because of their hatred of the GLC.
Clearly conurbations (and similar groupings of county areas) should be given greater discretion over a whole range of issues. The Liverpool City Region has a population about the same size as Northern Ireland and a GDP which is greater. They have a Parliament and we do not. What possible argument can there be that what is right for Ulster is not right for Liverpool?
What should the conurbations do?
• Land use planning
• Economic Development
• Inward Investment
• Post 16 none university education and training
• Waste Disposal
• Primary Health Care Planning
• Benefits for people in working age
These are things which are strategic and which enable planning and delivery to be done effectively. Liverpool would not go abroad to attract inward investment. It would be done by one body working on behalf of the whole area. Roads do not stop at a council’s boundary. Transport systems transport people across a wide area, training needs to be directed at a range of opportunities. Primary Health care needs to be both generic and specialised. These things can be done by bringing together services at a high enough levels to benefit from bulk and contiguity.
What should the NOT do. Anything else! There is no rationale for taking service delivery options from the Unitary Councils to the Strategic Councils. Although there are clearly cost benefits to be had by bringing big functions together there are financial disbenefits to be caused by creating bigger and bigger levels of delivery.
How should the City or County Regions be governed? Democratically! The combined authorities are a useful start in bringing together the councils into a legally recognised partnership but they have no mandate. No-one has asked the People of the Liverpool City Region their opinion on the long term future of their area and the big forward looking plans that are needed for it. Such plans can only come from legitimate political debate culminating in an election.
I believe that new City and County Regions should be governed by new Assemblies on the basis of one member per 50,000 electors. These assemblies would be either:
• Elected by the single transferable vote mechanism across the area; or
• Based on the proportions achieved by the Parties across the region in the immediately preceding Unitary and/or upper tier elections.
That the leadership of the region should be provided on the Leader/Cabinet system.
That the region will replace any Combined authorities, Fire, Waste Disposal and Transport Authorities and will eliminate the posts of Police Commissioners.
In most parts of the Country the Mayoral system has not delivered the goods in terms of enhanced performance or better services. In Liverpool there is strong evidence that the opposite is the case.
Lastly let us shoot the elephant in the room. Everything I have said in this article is meaningless unless there is an enhanced level of fiscal devolution. He who pays the piper calls the tune. We will continue to dance to the tune of Whitehall mandarins unless we control much more of our own income and expenditure.
We should therefore resolve to review methods of local taxation to allow them to include the tax take for:
• All National None Domestic Rates
• A proportion, to be established, of VAT
City and County Regions will also be allowed to levy local taxes to raise up to 5% of their budget with appropriate local measures to allow for local costs and spending pressures.
This is all very complicated so we need to establish a ‘Local Funding Commission’ to consider in greater detail these and other options and to establish a fair funding mechanism to ensure that poorer areas will not lose out.
When our Country was truly great it was because all parts of the UK contributed. The ship builders of the Clyde; the wool millers of Yorkshire, the cotton weavers of Lancashire, the manufacturing giants of the Midlands were every bit as important as London and the South East. To be great we must all be great – our power will come by harnessing the strengths and opportunities of all parts of the Country and not be a trickle down from one part.
This article has been written as a contribution to a booklet on devolution which will be published by the LGA Lib Dems and ALDC at a meeting on Friday 13th March at the Lib Dem Conference in Liverpool.