Devolving for co-operation

The Scottish referendum has led to calls for a re-think of the political system in England as well as Scotland. Co-operative councils are at the forefront of this...

The Scottish referendum has led to calls for a re-think of the political system in England as well as Scotland. Co-operative councils are at the forefront of this debate, calling for further powers and a more co-operative approach to decision making.

Milton Keynes council leader Peter Marland (Labour and Co-op Party) said new powers should be transferred to local authorities in the same time frame as the promise made to Scotland, nine months, with further devolution to follow.

Milton Keynes became a co-operative council last month. “It means we want to put power back into the hands of the citizen,” said Cllr Marland. “Imagine what Milton Keynes could do if we were given the powers locally to make changes and deliver growth.”

He wants Milton Keynes to have more control over local business rates, infrastructure funding powers and measures to make it easier to build more social and affordable housing, he said. He also called for a debate around what powers could be transferred on a regional basis, including health and transport.

“I think the knee-jerk reaction of our MPs and the Westminster elite about just carving out an ‘English’ parliament in Westminster shows they don’t get it,” Cllr Marland said. “More powers for fewer people in a remote parliament is not the solution – we need radical devolution of power back to citizens.

“The Prime Minister has pledged to grant Scotland new powers within nine months. The question is, will he give Milton Keynes what he is promising to Scotland, the power to shape our own destiny?”

He added: “In the long term, working with local and regional partners such as South East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership, I’d like to see a discussion on what other areas we might want local powers to manage budgets – such as health, transport, major infrastructure projects and even education. It’s a debate we must have to bring politics back to grass-roots level.”

Devolution is not a mere exercise in moving power from one arm of the state to another, said Andrew Burns, chair of the Co-operative Councils Innovation Network (CCIN).

“We’d call for a co-operative localism that places people power at the heart of devolution,” he argued.“The devolution debate shouldn’t just focus on national questions such as finding a settlement that suits Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England, nor be centred on devolution to city regions. We must find a settlement that genuinely devolves power to communities and is shaped by
co-operative values and principles.”

He added: “Genuine devolution can provide councils with the freedoms and flexibilities necessary to transform the way services are delivered and strengthen the economic leadership role of local authorities. It will enable them to prioritise local economic development, develop joined-up approaches to employment, skills and health, and boost their capacity to further grow co-operatives, social enterprises and businesses that benefit local people. This will enable co-operative councils to build on the great work they’re already doing.”

He points to Oldham’s ‘whole place’ co-operative reforms, Plymouth’s work in helping set up the Plymouth Energy Community co-op and Glasgow and Edinburgh’s co-operative development units.

But are co-operative councils ready for more powers? Cllr Burns, who is also leader of Edinburgh Council, says key areas of public services should be devolved immediately. “For example, the skills and employment support system is currently far too fragmented, centralised and ineffective,” he said.

“Integrating and devolving these funds and services would enable locally tailored approaches, shaped by co-operative values and principles, that can better meet the needs of communities and local labour markets. This would also enable local authorities to join up services and different streams of funding, helping us to strengthen our place-based approach to drive better outcomes in partnership with our communities.

“There’s already plenty of evidence, including from co-operative councils, that local jobs schemes are more effective than the national Work Programme.”

CCIN’s Commission on Community Resilience, Jobs and Enterprise publishes its findings in February 2015.

“There are concerns about ensuring that appropriate governance is in place before radically devolving power as part of a fundamentally new settlement,” added Cllr Burns. “However, devolution as a staged process can provide the space for councils to develop the structures, partnerships and relationships necessary to make co-operative localism thrive.

“Co-operative councils are already more effective and efficient than central government in many areas, and have the local knowledge to ensure services are delivered better.”

Cllr Jim McMahon, leader of Oldham Council and outgoing chair of the CCIN, emphasised the importance of city regions in his blog on the CCIN website.

“As we consider the ‘English question’, the emerging city regions are a natural reference point,” he said. “What’s the point in reinventing something which already exists and works?

“Politicians are delusional if they attempt to believe that lines drawn on a map for electoral convenience makes a jot of difference to the public… For some, it will be a discrete neighbourhood, a township or village. For others it will be historic counties such as Lancashire or West Riding of Yorkshire.”

He added: “Devolution isn’t localism and it certainly isn’t about community identity and we shouldn’t pretend it is.”

But, he says, Westminster is so disconnected from the lives of people in Greater Manchester it’s a nonsense that so much is decided there.

“London is a powerhouse. That hasn’t happened by accident,” Cllr McMahon says. “The capital we see today is the result of more than 100 years centralised government. Transport and infrastructure investment is commonly accepted as a vital foundation of economic growth. Londoners enjoy more than £5,400 a year per person while the North West of England receives just £599.

“The same can be said of housing spend, the arts and almost every other area of public spend. We don’t want any more than anywhere else, we just want the same.”

Cllr McMahon adds that the city region should not lavish funds and attention on the south of the region, including Manchester city centre, at the expense of the north. “We see a national ‘North-South divide’ … we see the same here on our doorstep,” he says. “While the south of the city region booms, we don’t see the same pace in the North, and it cannot be the case that we accept some areas just don’t do as well as others.

“If Westminster are willing to let go of power and resources there’s a greater responsibility on the leaders, mayor and councillors who make up the combined authority. The sales pitch to the people of Greater Manchester cannot be slightly more of the same; it’s got to be significant. We have to aim for a city region where fairness and equality is at the heart of what we do and where the dividends of growth are shared across all communities.

“We live in exciting times and the prospect of more say over the things that affect the people we seek to represent is critical if we’re to realise our full potential. But let’s not forget, if we only focus on Manchester we miss the ‘greater’ opportunity.”

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