Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill – Read my speech to the House of Commons 14 October 2015

by Liam Byrne | 15.10.15 | in: Communities, Local Issues, Universities, Science & Skills, Westminster | Tags: , , , ,

I am very pleased to be able to speak in this debate. I want to support the Bill and the principles at its heart, and to join many Labour colleagues in paying tribute to the Secretary of State for the way in which—with the guile, cunning and charm for which he has become famous—he has pursued the principles we are debating. This afternoon, I want briefly to encourage the Secretary of State to be more flexible on the one hand and more ambitious on the other.

I was not actually born in a town hall, although at times it felt like that. I am the son of a local government officer who, inspired by the practical idealism of the new towns movement, spent his career in town halls around the country. I grew up in a home in which the practical idealism of the Attlee Government was very much part of the atmosphere. I support the Bill not because of that upbringing, but because of my experience as a Minister in the Cabinet Office, in No. 10, in the Treasury and, most importantly, as the first Minister for the west midlands. Every lesson that I learned in that time in government taught me that decisions are made faster and better if they are taken locally.

Many Members of the House will have seen the glory that is the new New Street station. For years, Whitehall ran around the issues, ran away from the issues and failed to get the funding in place. It was only once we had a Minister for the west midlands that we were able to get people in a room, bang heads together and make sure that the deal was done. Four or five years later we can celebrate exactly what can be done when we get power out of Whitehall and vested more locally.

I want the Secretary of State to be more flexible in his approach to metro mayors. As a keen student of local government history, he will know that we only ever make incremental progress in this country. If we can encourage more power to leave Whitehall by encouraging authorities to come together, we should not let the issue of metro mayors get in the way, but just get on with it.

The real message I want to give the Secretary of State is that he needs to be more ambitious. The Bill strengthens his hand in relation to local councils in this country, but not in relation to other Departments. When I was Chief Secretary, we invented the new concept of Total Place, which showed the ideas and savings that could come from putting services together. I was also the chair of the Manchester Whitehall group, and I had to negotiate with other Departments for the powers we gave to Manchester. I can tell the Secretary of State that that was like drawing teeth. If he is to make the impact we think he could, he needs powers in relation to other Departments to force them to give away the powers that will make the difference locally.

I will illustrate that point with a few comments about my home town of Birmingham and the combined authority of the west midlands. As the Secretary of State knows, the challenge we face is that wealth per head in our region is 20%, or about £4,000 a year, below the national average. Our knowledge economy—the jobs of the future—is actually shrinking, not getting bigger. In fact, it has 2,000 fewer jobs than it had before the recession, whereas other regions, such as the north-west, have about 35,000 more jobs. We can expand opportunity for the people we serve only if we can create a bigger knowledge economy for the years to come.

We therefore need more powers locally over science, skills and start-ups. First, on science, I want our region to be the enterprise and engineering capital of the country, but our universities currently draw just 3.5% of their income from the science budget. We need a bigger science budget and a bigger budget for the work that universities and industry can do together, and we need our combined authority to be able to shape those projects locally for the years to come. We have great firms, such as Jaguar Land Rover, and the serious gaming industry around Coventry, but at the moment we do not have enough resource or power to put together our university powerhouses with our industrial powerhouses to do great things for the future.

Secondly, we need more powers on skills. We need to create in the west midlands a German-style dual-track system that would allow our young people to take an earn-while-you-learn route up to degree level skills. Right now, just 200 young people in the west midlands are on such a route to a degree level skill, including just 70 in the great city of Birmingham and just 10 in Wolverhampton. We should be giving at least half of our young people an earn-while-you-learn route to a degree. That would be in line with Government policy, but we cannot do it because we cannot bring together apprenticeship agencies and colleges, we cannot co-ordinate with academies and university technical colleges, and we do not have much latitude to co-ordinate with universities. We could pull that together in a new system in the west midlands, if only we had the power and resources to do so.

Thirdly, we need more power to support an entrepreneurial revolution in our region. That was always the way in which we made our fortune. A new business is opening every 43 minutes in the west midlands. Up in Manchester, 20% more businesses are opening than in the west midlands. We need to be able to deliver more enterprise training and more start-up loans. Those are the kinds of powers that we need to make a difference.

That is why I say that the Secretary of State needs to be more ambitious with the Bill. He needs more powers in relation to other Whitehall Departments if he is fully to achieve his ambitions. If we get that right, there is a great deal more that we can do. There is no better example than Sir Albert Bore, whom my Hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) praised earlier, of what can be done. I hope that the Secretary of State gives us the powers to get on with the job.

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