Saturday 23rd April 2016
Peter Dowd, Labour MP for Bootle, tells Marcus Papadopoulos why he supports city-region devolution and why the Conservative Government needs to stop sending out mixed messages over devolution
Q Why do you consider city-region devolution to be a good idea?
City-region devolution has been a long-time in the making, and I have been a proponent of devolution for many years now. I believe it is time to take the agenda of devolution forward and welcome the whole process in. Politicians can argue over whether devolution should involve a mayor, a cabinet or a mix of both but the substantive issue, for me, is the devolvement of powers (and the key responsibilities which come with this) to people in cities up and down the UK who serve on the frontline. Of course, the question of governance is very important but it should not impinge upon the principle of devolution in the first place.
Q Can you explain the benefits to ordinary people of devolution.
The primary benefit is that cities would be allowed to prioritise how they would spend money at a local level, which would result in more efficiency and more monetary savings. So, for example, transport programmes which, at present, have to be approved by Highways England or the Department for Transport, would be taken by people who have their finger on the pulse, so to speak, and who know exactly what local people require in the context of transport. There are, of course, numerous other areas where decisions would be taken at a local level to the benefit of local people, including education, skills and employment. Potential devolution, in the context of education, for instance, is extremely important, as it is vital that local authorities have a say over primary education, secondary education and further education which is then linked into higher education. The atomisation of the system with free schools and academies has brought little of substance to the education system. So I believe that for local authorities to possess the power to oppose the atomisation of the education system, is a major benefit for local people. Devolution is, essentially, empowering the people on the frontline.
Q Are you supportive of the Liverpool City Region Devolution Agreement?
I am absolutely supportive of the agreement and we need to build on it. However, I would also like to say that some politicians, not locally-based, are trying to achieve perfection with devolution and this is dangerous. Liverpool, for example, is not post-war Germany whereby we are trying to build a brand new constitution for our great city; instead, what we are saying is that we are a mature democracy yet we have an incredibly centralised system so it is time to devolve. So, in my opinion, I am simply delighted with the fact that Liverpool, next year, will have devolved powers.
Q What is your opinion of the Conservative Government’s approach to devolution?
Well, I hesitate to bring party politics into the devolution debate but the Conservatives’ attitude on the matter is ambiguous, to say the least. On the one hand, the Department for Communities and Local Government, as well as the Treasury, is moving in the direction of devolution but, on the other hand, the Trade Union Reform Bill allows the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to decide, for example, whether a council worker in, say, Carlisle, should have time off to perform his or her trade union duties. So there is terrible tension within the government over devolution, with mixed messages being sent out. I just hope that the people in the government who genuinely support devolution win through in the end and that the little Englanders – the centralists – allow local authorities to make decisions which they know best about. So my message to the government is this: stop interfering, stop sending out a confused message, set out what the resources for city governments will be in the coming years, set out how extensive devolved powers and responsibilities will be and allow local authorities to carry out their work.
Q Where next for Liverpool?
The six districts which comprise Liverpool city region will come together and demonstrate that they can run the affairs of Liverpool better than people 200 miles down the M6. That is the concept to realise. Merseyside, over the years, has suffered plentiful from malign interference from Westminster – and it is time to end this.
Finally, I would to add that, in the context of the European Union referendum debate, the only lifeline which Liverpool had in the 1980s and 1990s was Europe. Merseyside would have been a virtual wasteland had it not have been for the support from Europe, such as the Social and Objective 1 funding, and this is no thanks to Westminster who, at one point, talked of a managed decline. I think people should remember that when they go into the polling station.