Hopefully the Liver Bird with be the emblem of our new ‘Devolved’ Authority
So the Liverpool City Region deal has finely blown in to town. Not a full blooded gale like the one that is currently taking place outside my window but more of a light summer breeze. It just about rustles the trees but really makes little impact.
Having said that Lib Dems from across the City Region will support the deal in our Council Chambers on Thursday. It is the only game in town. Not to accept it would eb foolhardy. It would mean that we would fall even further behind the Manchester City Region.
Looking at the deal in full there are four main problems with it:
One is that this is not really a devolution deal at all. This is the Government’s fault. The fact is that unless any region is given full tax raising and tax altering powers it is delegation and not devolution. This is hardly a surprising position as this Government like every Government in the past 40 years really wants to run the commanding heights of the Country from their Whitehall bunkers.
Secondly it does not remove the ludicrous position of Police and Crime Commissioners as is happening elsewhere. This is largely because of a technicality. In Manchester for example all 10 councils fall within the area of the Greater Merseyside Police Force. In the Liverpool City Region Halton is police by the Cheshire Force.
Thirdly it does not include the National Health Service. I understand from the media that this is because some of the Labour leaders did not want it. They are content to wait to see what happens in Manchester where a much greater control of the Health Service will be exercised. The social care and health services are reaching breaking point. Unless we do things differently they will break. Effective decsiions to chgange things can only be made at a local level where health and social care actions alongside the other neccessary public services can be joined together into one smooth system of care.
Lastly, one of the powers is really a fiction. I am a great believer in bus regulation. We have a fragmented service with huge competition on everything but price on the main routes but few services elsewhere unless they are heavily subsidised. However the North-East Combined Authority is moving away from using this power because of the large amount of compensation that will need to be paid to existing bus operators (although they would be the ones who would tender for the new regulated services!)
I am not surprised at this weak position. Liverpool CR is effectively at least 3 years behind Manchester CR. Throughout the past 4 years since the Government have made their position on ‘devolution’ clear and they have consistently outperformed their Liverpool colleagues. Although coming from different political parties (as distinct to our one party state). They have developed a clear and compelling vision for the conurbation based on a clear analysis. That vision has been effectively debated across the councils and communities. It has then been conveyed to the Government.
Alongside has been a clear understanding of how the new powers will need to be blended with the old powers. They have also developed a framework which provides clear accountability for functions across the region to be exercised both by politicians and officers.
In the case of Liverpool the bid that was put forward was dreadful. I have discussed this in more detail elsewhere but it really was just a whinge list. Instead of strong leadership we had a public and private bickering between the 6 Leaders and a decision to proceed which was taken only two weeks before the deadline and the bid document, such as it was, was only finalised two days before the deadline.
So this deal will not give us much more power or much more cash. However I believe that the existence of a new conurbation wide body accompanied by a Mayor (which was unnecessary) will have a lot more influence provided we do the right things. I believe that if we too develop a compelling vision for our conurbation a new authority will be able to pull together a wider variety of functions than our powers strictly allow. That sense of working together and sharing the same joint aspirations will enable us to sue that influence to make better use of the money and other resources that are available in our normal budgets and the budgets of our partners.
So two questions come up:
1. How do we create that compelling vision based on hard facts? I do not believe that politically or managerially within our councils and other public bodies there is s capacity for this so we need help. I am writing today to the Vice Chancellors of the 4 Liverpool Universities asking them to combine some of their work in research and development into a city-region centre for excellence. This would be a body which would seek out the best of what is happening around the world and help us translate this into hard actions and priorities within the City Region. Some of this goes on, notably within the Heseltine Institute, but it is nowhere near enough and there is little sign of an effective translation of ideas into practice.
2. How do we work together more effectively? Well a simplistic response would be simply to ask the 6 Leaders to grow up!! It is clear that personalities have had far too much place in the discussion to date. Legally there is no doubt that Labour is in charge and they have a democratic right to adopt that role. However things would be immensely improved if a Lib Dem and Tory were put on the Combined Authority Board with speaking but not voting rights. Having none-Labour councillors present and able to contribute would only help the level of debate and I would say exactly the same if it was 6 Lib Dem Leaders. Governance is strengthened when opposing ideas are properly put forward within a decision making process.
So today was not a backward step for Liverpool but a forward step rather than forward stride! It takes us a little way down the line towards the Lib Dem belief of a devolving state with local decisions being made locally. Crucially we now need to make what we’ve got work. All politicians and relevant organisations must not settle their differences and work together for the common good. We must make what we have been given today work. I will certainly do my best in this regard.