England is one of the most centralised countries in Europe. I say England, because the rest of the United Kingdom – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – has seen powers increasingly devolved over the past 20 years.
It is true that we have seen some devolution within England. The elected mayor of London has powers over areas such as transport, housing, planning and policing. The elected mayors of Greater Manchester and the West Midlands and other cities and regions have other ranges of powers – fewer but nevertheless significant.
But devolution in England is a messy patchwork quilt with overlaps (some districts belonging to two different Local Enterprise Partnerships, for instance) and holes (other districts having very little say over all but the basic services); and the funding is allocated to local areas on bases which can sometimes seem arbitrary or illogical. Why, for instance, does Sunderland NHS Clinical Commissioning Group receive some £224 per head more than Stoke-on-Trent in 2017/18 (and £411 more than Stafford), when Stoke is actually classified as having slightly higher needs than Sunderland?
The more I have seen of central government from Westminster, the less effective I believe it is in managing the detail of public services locally. It should set national standards and ensure that services are properly inspected against them, and it should apportion centrally raised money fairly – which it does not always do in the case of Staffordshire. However, it could allow much more freedom to local authorities to plan local and regional infrastructure, housing and services. They could also be given more powers to raise revenue to provide additional local services which people consider necessary.
The funding gap of £36m which Staffordshire County Council is facing for 2019/20 could be closed with fairer funding from the centre and fewer restrictions on the ability to raise revenue locally. I am still hopeful that the Government will listen to the case which I and other local MPs, such as Sir Bill Cash and Amanda Milling, have been making – most recently last week on the floor of the House of Commons.
The Staffordshire Deal launched last week by the County Council and Staffordshire University is an important step forward in taking more control of our future, while we continue to make the case for government to devolve more powers locally.
It concentrates on the future of our economy in Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent and the need to develop the skills needed (especially in the digital sphere) which will keep us competitive in the coming decades as we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
In a booklet on the ‘Future of Work’* published last week, and to which I have contributed, a Senior Minister of State in the Singapore Government has written about his country and its ambitious SkillsFuture strategy: “Singapore’s continued success will depend on developing a skilled and nimble workforce that can adapt quickly to change, backed by a culture of lifelong learning and skills upgrading.” What is true for Singapore will also work for Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent; and it will work best when managed locally.
*For a free copy of the booklet ‘The Future of Work’, please contact my office on 01785 252477.