Stephen Williams

Devolution: the next steps

Devolution is a journey, not an event.  The settlement that come into effect in May 2017 is just a modest beginning for the rebalancing of power away from our over centralised government to our city sub regions.  We have seen in the last decade that the devolved governments of Wales and Scotland and also the Mayor of London, have received greater powers.  Greater Manchester, which has piloted the non-London city region deals, is to receive greater control of the regional NHS budget from May 2017, as well as the powers that are to be devolved here in the West of England.  

I will put together an ambitious pitch to government for an enhanced devolution settlement for our region.  Devolution is an opportunity to do things differently and there is no reason why the government should not grant us greater flexibility to deliver the responsibilities that will be devolved in 2016.  My proposals for extra house building and improved air quality would be strengthened by a modest increase in our new powers.   But there is also a major opportunity to ask for additional areas of competence to be devolved from 2021, or sooner.

There is a compelling case for our region being able to retain more of our tax base. We are a net exporter of revenue to the Treasury.  When I make the case for more investment in local infrastructure I am not asking for subsidy.  I am asking for us to have the ability to spend more of our own money.  I would prefer this not to be a met with an additional hand out.  Rather, it would be better to have full local control of council tax (which would help the three local authorities) and business rates.  I also believe that the Mayoral Combined Authority should be enabled to test new taxes and levies.  This should include a hotels tax (adding a small amount to nightly hotel bills) and the ability to levy a pollution tax on vehicles.

I will negotiate with the government a second devolution deal for the transfer of major new competencies in 2021, at the commencement of the second mayoral term.  At this time I am wary of replicating Greater Manchester’s second deal, with a transfer of NHS powers.  I believe such a transfer is fraught with risk, until there is a sustainable long term funding base for both the NHS and social care.  I have advocated a hypothecated tax (based on the existing national insurance system) for the joint funding of NHS and Care.  

I believe there is more scope for a devolution of powers from the Department of Work and Pensions.  This would enable a joined up approach to tackling worklessness and poor pay, sitting alongside the skills powers that are being devolved in 2018.  I am also interested in the devolution of some aspects of the Ministry of Justice, such as the education of prisoners and the operation of restorative justice and probation.

Several devolution options are possible.  I will put together a cross party advisory group to consider the next steps on our devolution journey.  This group will include MPs, councillors, business leaders and academics.  I will take soundings from service users and advocacy groups as to how more local control could enhance public services. 

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