This should be the base for a Liverpool City Region Parliament
Yesterday I heard a really unspectacular speech from Greg Clark the Secretary of State for Local Government.
In it he claimed that local government would be healthier because we had less money! But intriguingly he really seemed to believe that he is really devolving power from the Centre to the City Regions through the Devolution Act which has at last passed through all its parliamentary stages.
Only one person seems to believe him. Joe Anderson made everyone in Liverpool laugh when he compared the City Region devolution deal with Magna Carta. Everyone else thinks it is a fairly modest step. It’s useful but it hasn’t really brought in more money. The £30,000,000 deal is work less than 50p per year per person inside the City Region. It won’t go far! Theoretically we have more power over the buses. BUT in the North East they have decided not to proceed with this idea because it would cost £240 million to buy out the existing bus companies even though those companies might well end up with better contracts under the new system.
So what we do have is authority over strategic direction on things like planning and transport and housing. We will have more influence over things like inward investment and we will have more clout as one body than 6 bodies working together. But our deal is massively weaker than that in Manchester where they will take responsibility for Health and policing as well.
Why does it have to be this way? Let’s compare the Liverpool City Region with Northern Ireland. Liverpool CR has a bigger population and a bigger Gross Domestic Product than NI. Yet apparently its okay for them to have their own Parliament but not us. NI is the weakest of the three devolved administrations, partly because that’s partly the way NI politicians want it. But they do have far more powers than we do. They have control over things like policing, health, justice, benefits, some levels of taxation, water – a whole host of polices. Unlike us they are not just a delivery body but a deciding body. Their policies will be ones that will be implemented whereas much of what we will be able to do is better implementation of London based plans.
The argument is that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are cohesive territories with a shared history and culture. Well isn’t greater Liverpool. Not everyone in the LCR wants to be in it. Southport for example has longed for independence from the rest of us for more than 40 years. But that is no different from parts of NI that would prefer to be in the Republic. The fact is that the Greater Liverpool Conurbation is a more cohesive and tight geographic unit that NI. There is no reason why we could not take more on.
What else could we do?
Let’s take health. If we accept that the job of the NHS is to keep as many people alive as healthily as ;possible for as long as possible then we must realise that in different parts of the Country we need different solutions because we have different problems. The disparities in longevity between Liverpool and the rest of the Country and between different parts of Liverpool are huge. We will never deal with those disparities with the rigid health service that we have trying to achieve the same targets with the same methods and the same tools but ignoring those crucial regional differences. Local controls could introduce proper local targets. They could join up housing, leisure, transport and education facilities (and others) in a cohesive programme to stop people becoming ill.
Let’s take taxation. We locally could decide which taxes were the most important to us and decrease some and increase others. Until we achieve fiscal devolution we will be tied to London based decision making because we are tied to the purse strings of Westminster.
Let’s take benefits. Local decision making and local delivery mechanisms could use the benefits much more usefully by supporting people into work (and most people do want to work) rather than penalising those who cannot work.
Breaking the power of London is an imperative for the regions and conurbations of England. Liverpool did not become strong because London allowed us to. It became strong because local people established local businesses that could take advantage of a whole range of local factors. People were not tied down by London based bureaucracy but empowered to take decisions for themselves. Liverpool declined as the power that we had trickled away to an over centralised government and a private sector that similarly wanted to centralise its control and command mechanisms in the South.
Unlike the current administration I am not prepared to take second best to Manchester and third best to Northern Ireland. For me the devolution debate is not over for a generation as some have claimed but up for renewal and negotiation from the 6th of May this year. Second best is never good enough for Liverpool. We have drifted into it because small minded Labour politicians could not agree to work as adults to agree the big picture priorities and solutions for the City Region but preferred to bicker about minority sectional and personal interests.
That must stop. Who the Mayor of Liverpool is (or the City Region for that matter) is not as important as what the Mayor does. We need to be thinking ahead, creating real partnerships, facing the World with confidence. That is the Lib Dem pledge for May in Liverpool.