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CORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE To be published as HC 371-iii
HOUSE OF COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE THE
POLITICAL AND CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM COMMITTEE
DO WE NEED A CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION FOR THE UK?
THURSDAY 6 SEPTEMBER 2012
SIR MERRICK COCKELL
GED FITZGERALD, WILL GODFREY and TOM RIORDAN
Evidence heard in Public
Questions 124 - 178
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
Taken before the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee
on Thursday 6 September 2012
Mr Graham Allen (Chair)
Examination of Witness
Witness: Sir Merrick Cockell, Chairman, Local Government Association, gave evidence.
Chair: Sir Merrick, welcome-yours is a familiar face. Do you want to say a few words just to kick us off?
Sir Merrick Cockell: I do not think so, actually, Chair. I am happy just to answer your questions.
Chair: We will give you a nice starter. I know that Simon is very good at that. He will be very friendly and get you warmed up.
Simon Hart: It is nice to be told that my questions are so easy.
Chair: I said as a starter. The nasty ones come later.
Q124 Simon Hart: I have to go fairly soon, so I apologise in advance if it looks rude if I ask a question and clear off.
We have talked quite a bit about the culture of conventions and the upcoming referendum in Scotland. One of the things that has puzzled us is whether you think that there is a case for establishing a convention before matters have been resolved north of the border.
Sir Merrick Cockell: I suppose I could ask you questions about the nature of the convention and whether you have reached any views on it, but clearly, whatever happens with the referendum in Scotland, there will be change. Whichever way the vote goes, there will be implications of some sort from that-possibly severe implications-so my instinct would be not to wait. If there is an appetite in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as well to be part of a UK convention, why not move ahead with that? I think there is a wind behind those of us advocating a review of England’s status within the Union and how England operates. Why not get on with that? There are political opportunities, in the timing of general elections and things like that, so I would favour getting on with it, although obviously you could not do it unless there was willingness from all parts.
Q125 Simon Hart: The natural supplementary question to that is: do you think that, to maintain the momentum, the process should be formalised in a statutory sense, or can a constitutional convention be an informal process?
Sir Merrick Cockell: Again, I do not know whether there are logical consequences of a formal or an informal status, but if a formal status meant that the members of a convention were in any way unable to be fully representative of those who should be party to such discussions, I would not be in favour of it. My instinct on who might be members of such a convention is that it should be those who hold elected office. Who else can speak on behalf of other people other than you and those I represent? I am not saying they would be the only components of a convention, but they must be essential to it. I think that the two parts of the governance of the Union should participate in it. If a formalised status prevented that, so that it was simply made up of parliamentarians, my view-it will not surprise you-is that that would not be helpful, certainly from a local perspective.
Q126 Simon Hart: One of the questions that we have asked every witness on this topic is about the extent to which we could generate public interest and how we would go about that at national and local level, and how we could avoid the whole thing just becoming a huge intellectual exercise among academics and thereby turning off, rather than turning on, the public. Do you have a view on how we should do that?
Sir Merrick Cockell: As you know, we have some experience of working with your Select Committee on trying to generate some interest around the country. I have travelled with your Chairman to a few places, and one cannot pretend that there was a reception committee made up of thousands of residents of Sunderland or the various places we have been to, but I do think that local communities, perhaps led by their councils, can generate that interest. Again, I am not suggesting that some of the other things, including just being in work, are not clearly prime considerations for people, but still we have found a real appetite and interest, particularly when you are talking about a potential shift in power.
We are always discussing why turnout at low elections is so poor, and the instinctive response is that it is because many people wonder why the hell they should bother to vote when the town hall always get re-elected-there are not enough powers at local level, so why does it matter enough to bother to vote? But I think people are more interested now. Perhaps it is because there is greater confidence in local government than there was a few years ago-that is borne out by the work we have done on surveying satisfaction ratings. That has gone up in the last year, so I don’t think people think the local system is broken. There are inevitably questions about the centralised state. I think a significant number of people would want to contribute, but at local level we would need to work to generate that and give opportunities, whether it is town hall debates or whatever, to try to bring some life to something which, as you say, could be a pretty sterile discussion among only those who are directly involved.
Q127 Paul Flynn: Who should represent England in any convention? Should it be local authorities, MPs, cities, Lords? Who should it be?
Sir Merrick Cockell: There is no single person, is there? I do not know the potential size of a convention, but clearly with any group of people, the fewer there are, the more likely they are to reach conclusions within a lifespan. You would have to look carefully at the make-up. If local government was represented broadly through the LGA, the representative body, it would be our responsibility to make sure that rural areas were there as well as cities, and that there was cross-party representation. You could easily end up with 25 people on that basis. On the other hand, we very often have to find a balanced grouping to represent local government. I think one could do it but clearly there are distinctive voices that would have to be part of it: cities, counties and smaller communities should all have a voice in this.
Q128 Paul Flynn: England has had a centuries old habit of telling other countries, including the colonies of Scotland, Wales and Ireland, and countries in far-flung corners of the world how to run their affairs. Do you think there is an appetite in England for self-government?
Sir Merrick Cockell: I think increasingly there is. You refer to colonialism and the mother country being England. Other countries, be they ex-members of the empire or, indeed, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, are allowed to move away from the default, mother country’s view of the right way to govern, yet the mother country has not had the debate about what is the right way to run that model-that mother country model that others have been able to have their own variation of. That, I think, is probably a justification for a convention where England reaches some conclusions as part of a UK convention-it is a UK convention you are proposing-and that England discusses these things, rather than, as you might have said, Chairman, England being the last part of the British empire, still run, as we concede, in a way that might have worked with running India from the India Office. We would certainly question, as you have done, whether those silos and that sort of approach are effective anymore.
Q129 Paul Flynn: As a representative of part of England’s first, and probably last, colony, I do fret about these matters and about whether the asymmetric nature of the distribution of power at the moment is detrimental to England. We just appointed a new Secretary of State for Wales, who will be a small fish in the small pond of the Wales Office, and who is progressing towards having the status and influence of, say, the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, but without the smart uniform-
Sir Merrick Cockell: Or the accommodation.
Paul Flynn: Indeed-or the civil servants or anything else that they have. Do you agree that the power is flowing down the M4 to Cardiff anyway, and that we will increasingly see just the trappings of office left here-people with seats in the Cabinet and great titles, but whose influence is draining away?
Sir Merrick Cockell: Clearly, that must be the case, but it is bizarre. Wales is about twice the size of Northern Ireland and London is more than twice the size of Wales, but Wales has its own NHS. I am sure that the Mayor of London would be very keen to have more direct control over health with the boroughs.
The whole asymmetric argument takes us quickly to the financial settlement and the Barnett formula. I don’t know if that is where you want to head, but clearly Lord Barnett thought that that historic mechanism would last for a few months. It does have bizarre consequences, particularly at a time of less money. Although it is not something that is on the lips of every citizen, clearly in local government and across the parties, it is, because one has to recognise a growing dissatisfaction-if not something further than that-in that arrangement. I particularly saw that when we were up in the North-East and on other trips that I have made there, where the whole relationship with Scotland is far more immediate and the pressures, the demands and the ability of the workforce to move are absolutely visible to that region. We are not going to be able to avoid looking at the symmetry of funding and its fairness and must try to work out something that is actually based on need rather than an artificial formula.
Q130 Paul Flynn: I recall the late David Taylor, a greatly respected former MP, asking that his constituency of North-West Leicestershire be renamed "Powys, Far East" because of Barnett envy that he wished to fulfil. If you see the convention coming out, do you see it dealing with the whole picture that is likely to emerge, possibly after the Scottish referendum and possibly when the weather changes if they go for independence, or do you see it dealing principally with the relationship between each of the elements in the devolved powers at the moment? The relationship or the big picture?
Sir Merrick Cockell: I suppose my experience of public life is that if it ranges too widely, there is a risk that it will quickly get focused into House of Lords reform or other fascinating matters. The LGA’s wish would be that it focused on the relationship between the constituent parts or on changing parts of what is currently the Union. One way or another-whether that is with an independent Scotland-we will have to be working out how we work together. The geography will not have changed, even if the political realities have. I would hope that it would focus on the interaction between the constituent parts.
Q131 Stephen Williams: Robert Hazell from UCL, who sends us submissions, has quite often said that England is the most centralised state in Europe. I remember Charles Kennedy often making a joke at Lib Dem conferences, that Britain, as well as England, is the most centralised state in the European Union apart from Malta, which obviously has special circumstances. I presume that you agree with that assumption, but why do you think England has remained this centralised state, particularly outside London?
Sir Merrick Cockell: I think it is history. I am a politician and the reality of politics is that one wants to be able to change things, and to reach political office where one can follow one’s views and change matters. In the parliamentary system, that is based on becoming ministers. In a centralised state in that sense, with the civil service supporting that, you believe that you can alter things by changing policy and the things that we see every day, including today. That reinforces a centralised state.
The difficulty we are in now, and there is increasing evidence of this, is that statements or changes in advice to local authorities or others are unlikely to work or work quickly enough to have an impact, particularly on the financial position of the country. That is why it is time, not to break up the system or head in a direction of an English Parliament or something like that, but to re-craft a grown-up relationship with local government.
You referred to other countries being less centralised. I went to speak at a local government finance conference in Sweden a few weeks ago. It was fascinating that there were 3,000 delegates there, in a local government finance conference.
Stephen Williams: Must have been fun.
Sir Merrick Cockell: They thought it was. The fact that I was able to speak in English was impressive to start with.
Talking with them, and then with some leaders of Danish local government the next day-of course you would be loyal and speak positively about your system-it did feel as if there was a far more grown-up relationship between both parts of government in those two countries. In Denmark, the financial settlement for local government is a proper negotiation, with an understanding of responsibilities on both sides; there is dialogue in it, conclusions are reached, and that is just how business is done. That is enshrined in law, which is another focus area of your interests. My view is that that is more likely to work.
What I find doing this job is that, increasingly-indeed, this was very much the case in a Select Committee hearing on universal credit yesterday-the line is that if you involve local government at an early enough stage, your policies are more likely to work. We have had more announcements today on planning, and we had a few hours’ notice of some of it, but frankly, if we-not just the LGA, but local government as a whole-were able to bring into play our expertise, as well as just knowledge of how the world works and how local government planning works every day in our areas, we would have been able to help the Government to have more effective announcements, not just on planning, but on other things.
We need to move to a different way of doing business between both parts on a far more equal basis in government. I think that has more chance of working, which ultimately is what we are all about: we do want to change things; we want them to be effective. National Government, the coalition Government, have a legitimate right to put their policies through, but we also have legitimacy and we can help-I hope positively-governments to achieve what they want to achieve, and very often it will be exactly what we want to achieve. We want to achieve economic growth; we want to kick-start it. We have schemes around the country ready to go and we need some approvals. The more we work together, the more chance there is of effectiveness.
Q132 Chair: Let me follow up what you were saying, Stephen. Sir Merrick, on the amount of money that is raised locally in Sweden and Denmark, I do not expect you to have the statistics in your head, but isn’t it true that local government in England raises about 5% or so of its own money through council tax, whereas in the Nordic countries you mentioned, I understand that it is more in the 30%, 40%, 50% range. They have a degree of financial independence that our local authorities do not have.
Sir Merrick Cockell: That is certainly correct. I think local government in Sweden accounts for something like 40% of GDP. That rings a bell from the briefing I had a couple of weeks ago. It is substantial sector. I don’t know if my advisers can tell me the amount of GDP that would flow through local government.
Q133 Chair: Sir Merrick, it was very unfair to drop that question on you. If your resources can be deployed to give us a note on that, it would give Members a perspective on our finances compared with those in many other countries and would be helpful.
Sir Merrick Cockell: Certainly. It must be substantial in this country as well. You would think that, as with industry and other parts of the sector, you would want to work closely with a sector that covered so much of the economy, yet that relationship is very different here, as you well know.
Chair: Yes. Stephen, sorry for interrupting.
Q134 Stephen Williams: Back to the English model, away from Sweden. Why do you think it is that English politicians, such as yourself, in local government-where I used to be, as did Fabian-put up with diktats from Westminster politicians who may not have served in local government or know much about what happens on the ground? The housing announcement today may be a classic example of that. That was probably done in a way that no one in Los Angeles would tolerate from the state capital of California, let alone from Washington DC; or that the Mayor of Munich would tolerate from the government in Bavaria, let alone from Berlin. Is there a peculiar English craven relationship to Westminster?
Sir Merrick Cockell: Perhaps we are hearing the Mayor of London responding differently in recent times, aren’t we? I think we are all conditioned to the system that we have and to feeling subservient.
Q135 Stephen Williams: Do you think local government in England is ambitious enough? You are the Chair of the LGA in England. Do you think local government has shouted loud enough and been ambitious enough to stand up to the centre? It is always part of the problem that a lot of ambitious people in local government actually want to be here.
Sir Merrick Cockell: Yes. There is a lot of history to this, of course. The overall history of local government has been patchy at times, but I think that has moved and we have moved on as well. The sort of ease with which governments have batted back ambitious local government by pointing to failure-maybe in different authorities-and portraying local government as failing when broadly that is certainly not the case, has been part of it. Some parts of the media do not see local government in a positive way: they go for the anecdotal stories as if to indicate that they reflect all local government throughout the country. That is just something we have to live with, but we have to increasingly make our case.
I actually think we are enormously helped by local government’s broad performance in this recession. We have taken, as you have heard too many people say, very large cuts and we are in the process of that, but the consequences of that have been far less visible. It has surprised even us in local government that, actually, we have been pretty good at finding ways. It goes back to this more mature relationship. I think we have a more mature relationship with our communities and those we represent at a local level in understanding the need to find savings-nobody was arguing against the need to find substantial savings; maybe not 28% but still substantial savings-and then working in local areas to find the best way through according to local circumstances, and bringing in partners in a grown-up way. As a result, collectively in your community you have some real buy-in-perhaps not from everybody, but weighty buy-in to those decisions led by local authorities in finding ways of saving money. That is indicated by the satisfaction ratings.
We have a great story to tell now. I think it is a story that national government can learn from, because we can show evidence of the working together and the co-operation. We can show how our efficiencies are coming through and that we are working in very innovative ways now, increasingly-not uniformly, but we are all moving in that way. Manchester is a prime example because of the work that they have done, without anybody forcing them, in the direction of AGMA and their new legal status, and there are examples in the city deals done throughout the country. In speaking louder, we have the weight of evidence behind us and, I think, more broad support from local people who look to their local authority and find that we are the people they work with day to day and that we are doing, broadly, a pretty decent job in difficult times.
Q136 Stephen Williams: You lead one of the 32 London boroughs and you have mentioned the Mayor. Do you think that the existence of the GLA and the Mayor, in combination with the 32 London leaders, has, ironically, strengthened the voice of London vis-à-vis the rest of England?
Sir Merrick Cockell: In a previous role I chaired the London boroughs for four years. Part of what I tried to do-frankly, it was difficult under Ken Livingstone-prior to the Conservative party’s selection of Boris Johnson was reaching conclusions on the difficult balance between the boroughs with substantial powers, and the Mayor with substantial powers in certain areas but no powers over the boroughs at all. The London councils did issue a challenge manifesto to the candidates six years ago, or whenever it was, challenging them, cross party, to commit to working with the boroughs, but stating that the boroughs would give that voice for London to the Mayor. Indeed, indeed we set up a constitutional agreement-a convention that meets a couple of times a year-as a symbolic thing. That was a very conscious willingness and recognition that we could only make London work if all those elected to represent it got their act together and were willing to co-operate.
Part of what you have here is a democratic system that actually is pretty effective. Bar relatively few people, I think, there is no wish to create five super-boroughs because the boroughs have failed. The boroughs are finding more effective ways of working together and saving substantial amounts of money. They are also working effectively with the Mayor, particularly in many areas where there are common views, but even where there are not common views, they still work effectively, cross party, for Londoners.
Q137 Stephen Williams: What I was hinting at, as an MP who represents Bristol, is that we now have the situation where we have the London economic elephant being matched by a local government elephant, with 32 boroughs and a Mayor-and you are the capital city anyway. Do you think that there is now even more of an imbalance between London on the one hand and Nottingham, Leeds and Bristol on the other? If you accept that that is a problem, what is the solution?
Sir Merrick Cockell: I think that is just the reality. London is our capital, but it is a world city, as we know, isn’t it? It is actually competing across the globe in a unique way. Indeed, in economic terms, the centre of London is a bubble.
Q138 Stephen Williams: But Boston is not so dominated by New York or Los Angeles or wherever. Munich can look Berlin in the face and so on. Why can’t Bristol and Nottingham be big players, too?
Sir Merrick Cockell: It is no surprise that London will run as fast as it can. Any city will do that and will push hard. Other cities, some more successfully than others, are beginning to do that. They have to be willing to take London on. They will never compete with London in scale and things like that, but they have to make a real case for their own cities and be pushy and demanding in doing so. There is also a danger that London is not alert to the rest of the country. Simply saying to industry or national government, "Invest in London, because £1 gets you more value in London than anywhere else" is a sensible argument if you are from London, but it is not a realistic argument nationally. London has to work co-operatively with other cities to make sure that that is shared, and that some of London’s power is also shared.
Q139 Fabian Hamilton: Hello, Sir Merrick. It is nice to see you again. I want to ask you about the comparison between British local authorities and those in Europe that Stephen has just alluded to. The average municipality in Europe, as I discovered while cycling from Leeds to Berlin this summer-I just had to get that one in-and I went through many of them, is about 5,580, compared with about 152,000 in the UK. Obviously cities such as Bristol, Nottingham and Leeds, not to mention Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham, are somewhat bigger. Do you think that if we had genuinely devolved powers we would have to reorganise our local government to have smaller municipalities? I am thinking of the communes in France, for example.
Sir Merrick Cockell: Yes, on my Scandinavian trip, one of the other speakers was from French local government. We were looking at the whole structure of capital borrowings for local authorities. France is doing some very interesting stuff as well. I think he said there are 36,000 mayors in France, so when they have a local government or mayors get-together, the President of France speaks, every single year. Increasingly I am against central Government deciding what the best model for local government is. We have talked about Manchester, but many of the cities and areas that you represent are working out for themselves the right configuration. Perhaps one of the difficulties of regionalism under the past Government was that other people decided what region you were in. Often it was fine if you were in London, but a lot of people in Bromley would say they were in Kent, so even that was not necessarily easy.
In the rest of the country, you were ending up with configurations that just bore no relationship to how people and local authorities saw themselves. However-maybe you see some of this through LEPs-you can say, "You are responsible for your area. You have now got to work out who you work with, and who you work with in different circumstances." There are fuzzy boundaries to these arrangements; if you are in York, are you in Leeds city region? Well, you probably are, but you will also be facing several ways at the same time. Somebody in Whitehall deciding that York sits in one place or another makes no sense. Let areas decide for themselves. I like small areas. I would do; I am in a very small London borough. However they are arranged, the closer and more accountable they are to people, the better.
Q140 Fabian Hamilton: That is a very good point. I live in a small town called Pudsey between Leeds and Bradford, and Pudsey still resents the fact that in 1974 it became part of Leeds metropolitan district. It still does not like it. Most people over about 60 in Pudsey just refuse to accept that they are part of Leeds. We get that repeated all over the country from the 1974 reorganisation, which is now nearly 40 years ago.
Sir Merrick Cockell: Yes, and for arrangements that allow Pudsey to still be Pudsey, but still be part of Leeds or part of Leeds city region, perhaps we can look to the French model.
Q141 Fabian Hamilton: The French model is quite interesting. I did not realise there were so many mayors-136,000, did you say?
Sir Merrick Cockell: No, only 36,000.
Q142 Fabian Hamilton: That is more manageable, perhaps. I had experience of that recently at a wedding in a small village in the Loire valley. Of course, all wedding ceremonies in France have to be conducted by the mayor; you have to have the civil ceremony before the religious one. The mayor knew everybody at that ceremony, or everybody who was local. That is a really strong point. However, I am not sure that that would work in the UK.
Sir Merrick Cockell: Yes, but the French have urban communities and that is where you bring a lot together. The mayor of Lille leads a much larger grouping.
Q143 Fabian Hamilton: Yes, that is true. As you have suggested, plans for English regional assemblies were abandoned in 2004, when the North-East referendum was defeated. I think we all remember that. In 2011, data from the British social attitudes survey showed that only 25% of English people favoured an English Parliament, and only 12% favoured English regional assemblies, whereas 56% favoured the current arrangements in which laws are made at Westminster and, as you say, imposed from Westminster on the regions and the localities. Do you think that people in England really are interested in devolution, or is it that they have never had any experience of it?
Sir Merrick Cockell: I do not think people are interested in an English Parliament, but how can I speak for England?
Q144 Fabian Hamilton: On the regional assembly in the North-East, you would think that, of all the regions of England, Newcastle and the North-East Tyneside region would feel strongest about it, and yet it was roundly defeated.
Sir Merrick Cockell: Yes, but I would say that the strength in the North-East comes from individual towns, and component parts of the North-East with great histories and great municipal histories, who are pretty effectively working together across parties. People do not need to have a great appetite for it. They expect their elected leaders to sort themselves out, and to get on and find the best arrangements. I do not think they necessarily feel the need-I know they do not-for another tier of politicians to vote for, but they expect us to do the best and find ways of co-operating. They are amazed when they find out that we do not do these things naturally, or that we wait until central government tell us to do it.
Q145 Fabian Hamilton: So you do not think that those attitudes and that survey have any serious implications for the prospect of setting up a constitutional convention.
Sir Merrick Cockell: No, I don’t.
Q146 Fabian Hamilton: Thank you for that. How important will it be to involve the general public in any constitutional convention, or do you think that locally elected people are the voice of the public? How could we involve the public, anyway? On what basis?
Sir Merrick Cockell: I think that would be going back to the beginning; we would have a responsibility to try to engage the think-tanks, the leaders of thinking and the newspapers and so on to try to bring this to life-what it actually means-and to encourage debate on it. No doubt, depending on the size of the constitutional convention, I guess there would be others who must be in the room and part of it, but fundamentally I think it should be led by those who are elected to represent others, because part of our status is that people have given us the power to speak for them on these matters. We all know there are a lot of vested interests that speak on behalf of others, but do not do so with that clear authority.
Q147 Chair: Sir Merrick, you have been incredibly helpful personally, but also as an organisation, in getting the message out on further development of independence for local government. You mentioned the meetings that we did together in Sunderland, and there are many, many others; most colleagues around the table have done their bit as well in various places. Do you see as inextricably linked these two questions: devolution in the UK, specifically in England; and, since we have declared regionalism dead-at least for the time being-the idea that the only way to progress this would be through strengthened local government?
Sir Merrick Cockell: Yes, I would. They are, as so many other things are, interlinked. One feels, perhaps for the first time, that even though there may not be, as we have discussed, lots of people crying out for this, there is actually some weight behind it. There is a recognition, as I said earlier, that a very centralised state does not satisfy people’s needs, and that decisions being taken very visibly at a local level and variation within the country-a moving on from postcode-lottery arguments-should be positive rather than negative, because it reflects the needs of those communities and helps them to get through very difficult times.
To quote a political example, on the whole debate on council tax benefit localisation and how we deal with that and also the cut of 10%, our view is that that would be not only workable, but much better if local communities worked out in a mature way how you divvy up that saving, and who takes it and who does not, rather than having a view in the centre that particular groups should be exempt, which puts the weight of those reductions on a much smaller group of people, who are generally in difficult circumstances. That could be done so much better at a local level were we, frankly, trusted, and also made accountable and responsible. This is all interlinked, but I think there is a mood that will undoubtedly need some greater encouragement and some visibility.
In political terms, it should be very fertile territory for political parties going into planning their manifestoes for the general election in 2015. To have nothing new in this whole area going into a general election, from any political party, would seem bizarre, going back to the acceptance that what we have now is an outdated system from the 19th century that is not going to see us well-led further into this century.
Q148 Chair: If we all seem to be accepting that the British state is over-centralised, part of the answer in devolving power from that state takes a clear institutional form in the nations of the United Kingdom. You pass devolved power down to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but not to England as a nation; rather to some other institutional form. The regional level has been tried and has apparently failed, so in a sense, to pick up on Mr Williams’ question, even if local government does not want it-I think it probably wants it more than it ever has before-almost by default local government must be the institutional form of devolution in England. Do you agree with that-devo-max for English local authorities?
Sir Merrick Cockell: Yes, local government may need to form itself into a size of units that effectively can carry out the devolution, but we are seeing that. We are seeing that in the city bids coming in, but also in the willingness of the Government, and particularly Greg Clark, now to look beyond cities to other areas. I know that Essex is doing work in this area, but lots of others areas are as well. Indeed, Cornwall is saying, "Why shouldn’t we have what cities have? We are a large enough economic unit. We can work effectively at the different tiers of local government. Cornwall has only one tier, but we can still form ourselves into groupings that should command exactly the same treatment as unique deals being done with cities." That is the right model.
In some areas, in truth, some of that leadership may come not only from local government. Some areas may not be interested in the model that I am talking about in quite the same way or, indeed, may not be capable of it. As we are increasingly looking to areas to lead, perhaps other services within those areas will take the lead. Local business might take the lead in some respects. I am not saying that we will get all local government to the same place at the same time. That is not realistic, but we can look to areas to be able to do that.
Q149 Chair: Much of the drive in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for devolution has been a desire for self-governance and also, particularly in Scotland, a desire to organise their own economic policy and, to some extent, their own fiscal policy. Do you see that as having consequences, were there to be a local government settlement that enabled local government to be the agent of devolution in England? Would you see economic benefits to that as well?
Sir Merrick Cockell: Yes, provided there was a true form of devolution, which was not just simply the devolution of political power and decision-making in a variety of areas, bar the key area controlled by the Treasury. If you simply say, "No, no. The Treasury will still decide through the Public Works Loan Board. That is the only mechanism by which you can raise capital, and we will keep adjusting the rates, so that the bond market never takes off. We will always keep a firm control on everything. We will never allow you new tax-raising powers," that is not sustainable when one is with talking about real devolution to areas within the country.
Clearly, local government will have to show its ability. We shall see that more with the business rate coming back to local authorities. Clearly, we have to prove our effectiveness at using the opportunities from that, but I do not think that any of the areas must stop. They must be progressive, and I hope that the Government will look positively at particular areas of the country saying that they would like the flexibility to do other different things when raising finance in their areas, to work very co-operatively with businesses, and to look at the things that are untouchable at this stage.
Q150 Chair: You issued a clarion call to all parties to look at this question when drafting their 2015 manifestos. I am assuming that you would not object if the current Government, made up of two of those political parties, were to look at this issue in their mid-term refresh. That would not be too premature for you?
Sir Merrick Cockell: No, not at all. Chairman, you said how these things interconnect. The work that local government has been doing on community budgets-it all feeds in. If there is a single message from the work, which is halfway through, on community budgets in the four pilot areas, it is about focusing not on organisations, but on people. What can actually change how we provide services and the financing of them is a refocusing away from organisations to people. What we are talking about is all part of that argument.
Chair: Sir Merrick, I know that colleagues wanted to come back, but-forgive us-we are overrunning, and I do not want to be disrespectful to our next witnesses. Sir Merrick, thank you so much on behalf of the Committee for the effort that the LGA is putting in with regard to one of our other inquiries about the codification of the powers and authority of local government; it is much appreciated. Thank you for your attendance this morning.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Ged Fitzgerald, Chief Executive, Liverpool City Council, Will Godfrey, Strategic Director for Corporate Services, Bristol City Council, and Tom Riordan, Chief Executive, Leeds City Council, gave evidence.
Q151 Chair: Good morning, gentlemen. My apologies for overrunning a little with Sir Merrick. We can keep going if necessary. It is very good of you to come along. Is there anything that anyone would like to say in general about the inquiry we are conducting on the need for a constitutional convention, or would you like to pile straight into questions? Tom, you look as if you are just about to speak.
Tom Riordan: We produced a piece of work in Leeds on the future of local government. One of our five key conclusions was on what we called the English question. We are happy to submit that as evidence. It was quite a wide-ranging piece of work, with a wide range of people involved. I can go into the detail of that in the questions, but it is very relevant to your piece of work. We were pleased to have a joint meeting with you in Leeds, and to get our members to feed in. It is very consistent with the thrust of what you are looking at today.
Q152 Chair: Tom, do you want to put that conclusion on the English question in a nutshell?
Tom Riordan: I think what we found was that it very much played into this issue that devolution has happened quite successfully in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and London, but it has not happened in England. That prompts the question: what do you do with that piece of unfinished business? We came to two main conclusions. The first was that the obvious place to devolve to was local government, but you probably needed to do it not to every authority, but to groups of authorities. We see the combined authority model that Manchester has led and others are following, including Leeds city region, as a good way forward.
Secondly, we posed a question and suggested that one of the main anomalies is in Whitehall; the current structures do not have anybody with a specific mandate for England in Cabinet, yet there is for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. You also do not have a specific department mandated to work with England. Although the Department for Communities and Local Government comes close, it is not that department. We think that has therefore led to a lack of focus on England. We think that a structural change would be helpful in that respect. Those were the main conclusions.
Q153 Chair: So your model is essentially a voluntary and spontaneous collectively organised sub-regional group. It is something that people want, rather than something where Whitehall says, "You have to fit into this region"-something that Sir Merrick alluded to earlier. You evolve your own sub-regional city region.
Tom Riordan: Yes, bottom-up, I think. If you look back, whether at industrial development boards, training and enterprise councils or regional development agencies, of which I had some experience, you could say that their fundamental weakness from the start was the democratic deficit. You need to put something in place that meets that concern.
Chair: Unless Will or Ged want to say something, I will move straight to questions.
Q154 Paul Flynn: Should we have this constitutional convention before the Scottish decision in 2014, or afterwards?
Ged Fitzgerald: For us as officials, the issue of the convention would be more of a political and a representative question, rather than a professional, technical assessment. In the spirit in which the question is asked, I think it is very much at the heart of what you are considering overall. To pick up what Sir Merrick was saying when I came into the room, the distinctions between powers and resources, and between different geographical areas of the UK, are fundamentally important in determining whether a convention will work and the form the convention would involve. It is tricky to answer the question without knowing what the exam context is, so to speak.
Q155 Paul Flynn: Have you grappled with this problem of who speaks for England, and in particular who speaks for Pudsey? We know who speaks for the cities. Is it possible to get a group of people who could be representative of England?
Tom Riordan: I think you have to look at the democratically elected people in those areas. It would be Members of Parliament and the local authority leaders who would be the most obvious ones to do that. I personally do not think chief executives of local authorities, for example, should be part of that group. Local government should definitely be represented at the forefront, but it should be by the leaders.
There is probably a case, if you really want consensus, for thinking about who are the others, after the MPs and the local authority leaders, whom you might want to get round the table. That might include business leaders and voluntary leaders. When I was at the RDA, I always had Tim Kirkhope bending my ear about the MEPs, to ensure that they were in the loop. You could also say that the Lords are an important element. The main body should be around local authority leaders and MPs.
Will Godfrey: We are now also in the era of directly elected mayors. They will have huge legitimacy, in terms of the mandate that they will have received, having been directly elected. Certainly, in the cases of Bristol and Liverpool, that would be an obvious person to be involved in any convention.
Q156 Paul Flynn: My experience in local government is this: I was elected in 1972 to a county borough council. The powers that be had been persuaded that the ideal size for a council was about half a million, so we had county councils, to which I was elected, and district councils, to which I was also elected. Through these experiences of reorganisation, the situation now is that the council that represents my area is very similar to the council to which I was elected in 1972. In all those reorganisations that took place, there were huge costs and huge increases of staff, and we ended up virtually in the position that we were in 40 years ago. Isn’t there a case for leaving things as they are, rather than going through the disruption? The change rarely produces advantages that compensate for the chaos, waste and duplication.
Will Godfrey: Again, I can only come in on the official side of that. I have worked in a district council-I was chief executive-and I now work in a large urban authority. My perspective is that they all work in different ways. I think every authority I have worked for has been successful in different ways. You can spend an awful lot of time talking about what is the optimum size and optimum type of function for individual organisations. My professional view is that you can spend an awful lot of time and effort having a quite philosophical debate, but at the end of the day I have always believed that government of any type exists only to improve the lives of the communities it serves. That is the test.
Ged Fitzgerald: I agree with what Will has just said. Too much emphasis in local government, as in the health service I believe, is focused on structures rather than on the content, substance or context of what is carried out. The real question, if I may say so, underpinning your question is less, in my view, about structures than it is about roles, the resources point that we touched on earlier, and the whole decentralisation/centralisation debate. Over those 40 years-I can’t quite go to 40 years, but I can certainly go to nearly 30 now-I have seen, in my own career life, an increasing centralisation of the role of the national state relative to the roles of local authority organisations, whether district, county or, in my case, metropolitan. I think that should be the focus, rather than the structure and the debates about structure. I agree with your contention that too much time, effort and money is spent and wasted on structural conversations rather than dealing with the causal issues, as opposed to the symptoms.
Q157 Fabian Hamilton: On 5 July this year, the Minister for Decentralisation-I’m not sure I even knew that such person existed-[Interruption.] It is Greg Clark. Thank you. He stated that city deals would give cities "greater powers to drive local economic growth", "facilitate specific projects that will boost local economies", and "strengthen the governance arrangements of each city". All of you have negotiated city deals. Are you confident that the deals you have negotiated will benefit local communities?
Ged Fitzgerald: Shall I lead on that? Ours was probably the most controversial, if I may say so, in terms of the interrelationships, the form of governance and the mayoral arrangement that we volunteered to move to this February. My simple, shorthand answer to your question is yes, absolutely. That is the first step, in my view, on a road that should move progressively towards reducing the power and resource base of national Government relative to local organisations-whether it is increased decentralisation or devolution is an issue for debate, I guess-therefore facilitating more empowerment of people, whether local politicians, local businesspeople, or others who have a very clear stakeholding and clear allegiances and alliances to local areas, whose voices may not be expressed or exert a degree of influence under the current system, as opposed to the system that the city deal process has, in my view, begun to unlock.
Q158 Fabian Hamilton: Before Leeds and Bristol respond, I noticed that all three have put transport as one of the key issues. As a Leeds MP, I know what an issue that is, and Tom also knows. I am sure that it is the same in Bristol and Liverpool. I don’t know if you want to come back on that particular issue or the general issues.
Tom Riordan: I am sure, as Ged said, that our city deal is a big step forward. It will benefit our local communities in two main ways: first, jobs, in terms of the transport investment that we want to make and to get that moving straight away; and secondly, very much a big push for us on apprenticeships and the difficulty we have about a lot of young people coming out of school and university and not being able to get the training, jobs and skills that they need. A big impact on that cohort of people is what we are looking for and what we are confident we can achieve.
In transport terms, to compliment a government department, the Department for Transport has recognised the need to decentralise and move decision making down through the city deal processes. We have to look through the detail-the devil is always in the detail with these things-but if you talk to local people, as you have just said, the things that come out time and time again are things such as jobs, skills, prospects for young people, and transport.
Ged Fitzgerald: Just to build on the same point, ours was predicated on jobs and resources, in the way we were describing it a little earlier. That quickly opens up the issues of skills in the education system as well as the skills system. Fundamentally, you have a transport issue which, although technically it is legally owned by local authorities, is governed through a different system-the integrated transport authorities, in our cases. The transport agenda and the ability to strategically plan and strategically finance major transport infrastructure, which is clearly what we would be talking about in urban areas particularly, is disconnected from the economic agenda driven through city regions and increasingly through LEPs. That makes it difficult to achieve a jobs growth or economic growth role without having some more direct influence or leverage over local transport arrangements, through the ITA, but also through national government arrangements, priorities and so on around big transport decisions.
Will Godfrey: Like Ged and Tom said, in Bristol our instinct is that yes, we are very happy with the deal that has been put in place. We think that it will benefit the communities of Bristol. The cornerstone of the Bristol deal, effectively, is a £1 billion infrastructure fund, which has a large element of transport to it but is not exclusively around transport; it is also linked to economic growth, particularly around some key economic growth areas across Bristol and the west of England, to create jobs and so on.
One caveat for me is that the deal will be successful as long as what was agreed on 5 July translates through the legislative statutory process into real outcomes. The clue is in the name, really: a deal is between two parties and two partners. My fear and concern is that we might get sidelined into some national legislative processes that are outside the deal framework. That is a danger. If we get into that territory, then I am less confident that the deals that were signed on 5 July will translate into outcomes to really help local communities. That is frankly what we need to keep eye out for.
Q159 Fabian Hamilton: We have talked a lot this morning about how centralised government is in this country, certainly in England. Do you think that the city deals are the first step towards decentralisation?
Ged Fitzgerald: They certainly have the potential to be. I have been around long enough to know that, unfortunately, various attempts in this direction have been tried by successive governments, and success has been limited or changes in policy have reduced the impact of the success that was achieved previously. One point I really would like to emphasise is the financial resource one. In a sense, we can get sidelined on the decision making of governance, but it is the resource base I wanted to pick up on. Of our spend-our revenue budget-91% is determined by national government. That makes the ability of local people to exercise a real, relevant view on what we prioritise and what we spend more marginalised, and it certainly gives us less ability to manage our financial autonomy, if I can use that term. Logically, if you were designing a governance system for England, in our case as part of the UK, would you start with the system we now have? I doubt it.
Q160 Chair: So what is your alternative, Ged? You seem very fatalistic about that. I do not hear from you what your alternative is. You just say that it is pretty bad at the moment but it could be worse and you don’t quite know what you are going to do in future.
Ged Fitzgerald: No, I am not fatalistic about it at all. I would suggest that, by definition, a local authority chief executive has to be optimistic rather than fatalistic, certainly in the areas that each of us comes from. My view on the piece of work you are engaged in is that if the city deal process, the localism agenda, and the legislative framework that Will rightly referred to a minute or two ago all continue in the direction that has been set, then I am optimistic about the future. What I wanted to emphasise is that in our own city deal negotiations, we had all sorts of offers and promises about powers and I said, with due respect to all concerned, including senior politicians nationally, that the debate and the deal are not about powers. We have powers; we have general competence; we have economic, social and environmental well-being powers and so on. It is about resources, and it is about getting more control and leverage over our own resources and more control and leverage over other agencies’ and national government departments’ resources locally.
Q161 Chair: I see that is your wish, but what are your proposals? Does your organisation of chief executives have a clear view? Government will not give power; you have to ask for it in the first place. Do you have the ambition and the clarity about what you want at the moment? You can say no. It is not a bad answer if it is no, because we need to help get you there and you need to help get us there.
Ged Fitzgerald: In my opinion, the answer at the moment is a fragmented set of responses. There is no one clear plan; there is no one clear ask of government from the local government family and communities. That is partly because of the complexity of the funding regime. I mentioned the figure of 91% in our case, and I know Leeds will be not far off that kind of number, but I worked in Lancashire county council before Liverpool, and their number is a lot smaller.
Q162 Chair: So could you help us by trying, in your own field of professional chief executives, to get your own organisation to come up with something that is very clear and coherent? We are obviously looking towards the future, but no one will ever give us anything by way of a redistribution of power unless everybody has worked out where they want to be. Would you take that back to your own professional organisation?
Ged Fitzgerald: Speaking as someone who sits on the SOLACE board, I am more than happy to raise that with the board, but whether we can get that collective view, we will see.
Chair: We will manage. Fabian is going to ask a brief question, but I want Tom and Will to answer the same question.
Q163 Fabian Hamilton: I just want to mention the Commission on the Future of Local Government. You were at the launch of that. I think that could form the basis of that ask, because it was a very good piece of work, which obviously originated in Leeds.
Tom Riordan: I would just say two things that came out of that that are relevant. One is about the Barnett formula. I was in when Sir Merrick was talking about that, and I think it is an absolutely fundamental question if you look at the whole question of resources. That has to be one element of what we are asking.
Another thing that I would suggest, which we would obviously need to talk about, is the idea of a single pot to back up the city deals. At the moment, despite the work that has been done very well in the Cabinet Office, we will still have to have a relationship with different Government Departments. One of the good things that worked well that came out of the RDA era was the flexibility of the single pot. I have worked in Whitehall myself, and the thing that stops the culture in Whitehall letting go is the issue of how the money comes down from Parliament and gives you accountability, as an accounting officer, for the way that public money is spent-the regularity and propriety issue. That is the issue that needs to be transferred; that is the thing that needs to pass genuinely down to cities, to counties and to others. We need that flexibility to be able to decide what to do with the money, not a set of 10 strings where we have got to report back up in 10 different ways. That is the problem.
Q164 Chair: Often, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland had success in getting devolution because their ask was, if not always totally consistent, very coherent and collective. I think if you are going to wait to see what pops up out of the process, you may be disappointed, whereas if you are part of building that, we have got a heck of a much better chance of getting some progress.
Will Godfrey: In terms of the other question, I agree and hope that it is the first step towards devolution. One of the issues that perhaps we have not talked about much at the moment is that how local enterprise partnerships develop over a period of time is also critical to the equation. The city deals, effectively, are agreements in part with the local enterprise partnerships as well as with the local authorities. How those develop over a period of time will be quite important, because not only are there relationships between local government and central government, but there are now relationships between local authorities and representatives around the local enterprise partnerships. That is quite an interesting part of the equation as well, and it is uncertain at the moment how that will unwind. It will be quite interesting to see whether, when the economy recovers, making money available in other places, business will still play the part that it is playing at the moment in the local enterprise partnerships. At the moment, most of the money that business is able to access is through government, and therefore they have to play an active role in the LEPs. As the economy recovers, will that still happen?
Q165 Andrew Griffiths: Professor Robert Hazell has argued that Britain is probably the most centralised country in western Europe. To what extent do you agree with that and to what extent can you therefore give us some examples of how that centralisation has had a negative impact on the ability to deliver for our constituents?
Will Godfrey: Can I give you a direct example? I used to work in Wales, as well as working in England, so I have had some experience of local government in Wales, and it is very different. Wales, for instance, has had much more flexibility around the way that it can use its grants for a longer period of time. England is moving towards that way in local government. Certainly I think that the relationship between the Welsh local authorities and the Welsh Assembly Government is quite different from the relationship between English authorities and so on. Some of that is due to size and scale, but some of it is a philosophical issue about trying to give local government more flexibility.
On the question, I am not sure if it is the whole of western Europe, but certainly from my point of view, if you simply look at resources and our flexibility and powers, I would argue that we are a very centralised country. That does not necessarily help. If you look at Bristol, for instance, which is incredibly diverse with a lot of very different requirements, you cannot just have a single solution for all the communities in a city of 450,000. We need to have a much more flexible approach to solutions at local level. That requires greater trust and flexibility from central government to local government.
Tom Riordan: If I could add some examples, Leeds is the only major city in Europe without a light rail public transport system. We have been to-ing and fro-ing with the Government for probably 25 years on a major public transport scheme in the city. Thank goodness we have just got the green light for the trolleybus scheme-the NGT scheme-which we are very pleased about and which we are going to implement-but we have had major strategic pieces of land in our city centre waiting for this for 10 or 15 years. I think there is a genuine opportunity for transport with what is happening on rail, potentially on rail franchising and the bus system, together with the devolution of city deals, to go further there.
I have another example. It is not in Leeds, but it is in west Yorkshire. I know of a major company-a major employer-that is thinking of leaving the area, because they are being given an incentive from Scotland, and the locality has no equivalent resource to draw on. That comes directly out of the Barnett formula point. That does no good to the UK economy: it is recycling and making competition within the UK economy as a whole. A level playing field for us in economic development terms is absolutely what we need, and that is again where the city deals and the idea of a single pot could really help.
Ged Fitzgerald: Chair, I have already made the point that in my opinion professionally and in my professional career, the increasing amount of centralisation I think bears out the question, and that is borne out by lots of academic research and evidence that the Committee will be aware of and will be looking to, I am sure. I can quote lots of examples over many years of the degree of disconnect between national and local in the way that Tom perfectly exemplified. I cannot get a better example for you than the one I quoted a minute ago. Is it right democratically that the national government decide 91% of the funding base for what happens in Liverpool? Not only that, but generally, do the citizens-the taxpayers-of Liverpool know that? They don’t.
Q166 Andrew Griffiths: So it seems very much as though, when we are talking about decentralisation-or localism, as I prefer to call it-it is not extra powers you want or extra ability to be able to do things; it is just money.
Ged Fitzgerald: That is a key element of it. I would not say that that is the only answer, but that is certainly a major issue. If we have more flexibility over how we can raise and use money, we are clearly in a better position to meet the needs of local communities.
Tom Riordan: I would just add a couple of things. It is important to say that we are not just going with a begging bowl. We accept that it is not new money; it is the way that the existing money is used. That goes back to Sir Merrick’s point about community budgets and how we can make £1 of taxpayers’ money go further in our areas. The basic point is that we think that we can do that better than Whitehall.
The second point is that there is a need for us to accept that, sometimes, if you are a disengaged person in Pudsey-to keep with that example-you can still feel disengaged whether the money is being controlled by someone in Whitehall or by someone in the civic hall in Leeds. If we are to move in that direction, we have to ensure that we get that localism and that community engagement as part of this deal, so that people can genuinely see, whether they are housed in a tenant management organisation or in the local community, that they are going to have a bit more influence and power over all of the things that they actually care about in their local community. That is a big challenge, but it is one that I think we need to take.
Ged Fitzgerald: I would echo again the points that have been made. It cannot just be about money, and it isn’t just about money. Tom’s point about the begging bowl definitely applies. This is not a whinge about wanting more; this is about how what is there can be used better.
My other point is almost the reverse of your question, if I may say so, which is that without having more leverage and influence over the resource base locally, a lot of the other part of the democratic deficit and other issues that the Committee is looking at will not be relevant or operative, because you just get, with respect, to philosophy and philosophising if you do not have the ability for that bite to make a difference locally, particularly to local communities. That is borne out by turnout and by successive pilot exercises and all sorts of different ways of testing out ways of trying to improve democracy, which I completely understand and respect and have supported professionally. Ultimately, however, there is no point in doing those if the resource base still remains 91% controlled by Whitehall or Westminster.
Q167 Andrew Griffiths: Sure. So if we are going to transfer resources from central to local government-the localist agenda-there is an argument , that says, perhaps unfairly, that some local authorities are officer-led rather than councillor-led and that actually the democratic deficit comes from the involvement, the understanding, the qualifications and the experience of the elected representatives. All too often, it is people like your good selves and officers who are making the decisions and pulling the strings. How do you think that that can be countered? What can be done to ensure that if we are devolving money down, we are also ensuring that local government is ready to deal with that extra responsibility?
Ged Fitzgerald: I think that is genuinely a very good point. I have been chief executive in four local authorities-three metropolitan authorities and a county council. In three of those, the leaders of the council would make it very clear who was really holding control and making the decisions; equally, however, they would make clear to you the nature of the partnership and the relationship that underpins that decision making. In the fourth one, if my mayor was sat alongside me, he would have answered your question before I got to it.
I recognise the point you make, however, because local government is not homogenous. There are different areas, different skill bases, different competences, different capabilities and different strengths of councils, both in political and managerial terms. I think that that point is valid and well made. From my experience and my national roles, I can only say that there is a very clear understanding on the part of the professional infrastructure about what the roles and responsibilities actually are and who makes the decisions. I cannot answer the perception point that underpins your question, but you might get it from other places.
Will Godfrey: That is absolutely fair. I have worked in various different authorities and, as Ged said, they all have different characteristics but are all bound by one thing, which is the fact that local government exists only to translate the election of local representatives by local people into outcomes that local people want. At the end of the day, officers are there to help councillors make decisions that actually deliver outcomes, but the outcomes and priorities in my experience have all been articulated and developed by local elected politicians, and that is absolutely right.
Tom Riordan: I used to work in a quango-I was one of those dreaded people who are even worse than local authority chief execs-coming across to local government, I was very aware of this issue. Obviously, the Secretary of State has been very vocal about it during his period in power. We have a perception problem at times about the role of the chief exec. What I have experienced has been very different and very much what has been described. There is a recognition that we need both to work well. You can’t just make decisions and they try to make sure that they are all implemented and taken control of at a political level, because you would not have time to do anything else.
As for the role that scrutiny can play in local government, I do not mean pure scrutiny. We have different groups on our executive board-our public cabinet-and scrutiny of every decision that is made can help.
Q168 Andrew Griffiths: Do you think that the demand for you to publish expenditure of much smaller sums now is also adding to that? Do you think that it is making a difference in the way in which the council operates?
Will Godfrey: Personally, I do not think that it has made much difference at all. Very few people have taken interest in it or particularly had a look at it. In terms of the philosophical argument, it is absolutely right that local government and all public bodies be transparent. The danger with setting an artificial limit is that, in practical terms, particularly for a large organisation like Bristol, you must look through thousands and thousands of transactions to pick out something that you, as an individual, may be interested in. I do not personally think that that has really helped transparency. Transparency is a behavioural issue, rather than a process issue.
Ged Fitzgerald: I echo the point made about the balance between transparency and proportionality. Liverpool is a similar size to Bristol, so with regard to scale and volume, there would be the same kind of dynamics.
Q169 Andrew Griffiths: Mr Fitzgerald, you touched briefly on structures and roles, which is important if you are talking about decentralisation. I heard the Secretary of State say that he kept a pearl-handed revolver in his drawer that he would use the first time that anybody came into his office and asked him about local government reorganisation. He said that the whole point was not about structures, but what you do. To what extent do you think that the localism agenda has moved the issue away from structural issues? Look at things like the sharing of chief executives and the cross-border partnerships that we are seeing in more and more local authorities. To what extent do you think that that has had an impact on the debate, and on service delivery?
Ged Fitzgerald: That is a very good question. For me, it is a step absolutely in the right direction. It has shifted the debate, as you rightly suggested, away from structures as being the means of saving money in the present climate, and more on to the quality of local services. That is clearly a continuum, and, in that sense, it is moving in that direction.
Tom Riordan: Can I add one thing to that, which relates to the last question as well? We are going through such a massive challenge at the moment. Perhaps previously you could get into a cruising situation, say in an authority where the officers took more of a role than would have been liked politically at a national level. We are all going through such a change now, and we have to look so fundamentally at what we do. I think it is driving that. We have to have that political dialogue, and you have to have that look at how we are working. It is forcing us to have a bottom-up look at how we are operating and how we relate to our neighbours. It is having a dramatic impact.
Ged Fitzgerald: I agree.
Q170 Andrew Griffiths: In relation to the convention, to what extent do you think that cities that chose not to have mayors will be disadvantaged in any constitutional convention? How far do you think the involvement should go down? We are talking about mayors and local authorities. Is there a role for parish councils here? How far do you trickle the whole thing down?
Ged Fitzgerald: It is interesting that the question comes in terms of areas not moving towards a particular model being disadvantaged. Again, I prefer to look at it the other way round. There is no question in my mind that we are better advantaged under the mayoral model and the city deal arrangements than we were before. I am sure that the 58,000 people who voted for the Mayor of Liverpool would echo that point.
I will make this distinction, and perhaps I should have made it earlier in the conversation: one of the big differences for me in the mayoral model in Liverpool is that it is the Mayor for Liverpool, not the Mayor of Liverpool city council. That might sound subtle or slightly obtuse to an uninformed audience, which clearly you are not, but it is very distinctive. It underpins that point about the advantage, as well as the advantages that we negotiated through the city deal itself. It advantages the profile of decision making, of accessibility and visibility, and of transparency, and the fact that-Will and I were talking about this while we were waiting to come in-business people know that they can ring up, e-mail or tap the shoulder of one person, called the Mayor for Liverpool, to get things done and have a direct dialogue. Even with the best of intents, that was not the case before, in terms of trying to be accessible, streamlining decision making, accountability and so on, as I have said before. It is an advantage issue, rather than a disadvantage issue.
Will Godfrey: Obviously, in Bristol we are moving towards our Mayor. We have had the referendum and we will have the election on 15 November. It is interesting going through that transitional period, in which people’s minds are very much on what will be different and so on. Personally, I think it is a sign of the strength of local government that we are able to deal with different structures, with some areas and cities having mayors and some not. It is a genuine reflection of the desires of the different communities across the country. That is the way that democracy should be. I do not know what will happen with the directly elected Mayor in Bristol. It will be an interesting experience, both from a professional perspective and from the perspective of what happens. The experience elsewhere, as Ged said, is that the strength of it is that people do see a very clear leader for a place, rather than a leader of an institution. I think that that is a big difference.
Tom Riordan: I will have to put the other view. I suppose that I would say that you have to respect what people voted for. If we just went for mayors across the country, you would miss out the six biggest cities in the country. I do not think that you can do that; you have to have both. It will be interesting to see how the mayoral models develop. In Leeds there was an interesting debate, with a lot of the feelings that you have heard articulated. The greater feeling was probably about putting power into one person’s hands.
You have heard the example of the Pudseys of this world, in Leeds. Sorry, I do not know if you were here before, but we were mentioning one part of Leeds. Leeds is quite a federal city; it is made up of quite distinctive places, and the feeling there was that they did not want to give that away to one central core. It will make it work with the model that we have got at the moment, and it will work well with those places that have got mayors, I am sure.
Q171 Andrew Griffiths: Mr Riordan, something you said earlier has been ticking away at the back of my mind-I think it was you who said it. It was about your concerns regarding LEPs.
Chair: And their relationship to the constitutional convention.
Andrew Griffiths: And their relationship to the constitutional convention.
Will Godfrey: I said something as well.
Andrew Griffiths: Oh, was it you? Sorry, yes. Clearly, we need to understand the role that LEPs will have in relation to the constitutional convention. Their very make-up, when they were established, was, from my understanding, to be business-led. If you are predicting that in a few years’ time business will disengage from that, and they will become more of a forum for local authorities to co-operate in, rather than a partnership of that kind, that has, for me, big implications, both in terms of how the LEPs operate and in relation to how we would need to engage with them as regards a constitutional convention. What do you think?
Will Godfrey: What I am reflecting on is that at the beginning I think the purpose seems very clear-trying to promote economic growth-and that is absolutely understandable and right to do. Experience of the city deal, though, has shown that as LEPs have developed and perhaps got a bit more confident about their governance, etc., their reach has been getting broader and wider. Where there does that stop, and what does economic growth mean? Economic growth can be many different things to many different people. I am just speculating on whether, if they get more embroiled in being seen as institutions and processes, rather than bodies that come together to stimulate the economy, it will then simply be seen how that additional layer of complexity plays out with all the other layers that we have got. That is all I am saying. That is quite an interesting thing that might happen over the next few years.
Tom Riordan: I think the LEP needs to be the economic arm of the area; it needs to be accountable locally, whether to the mayor or to the group authority-the now combined authority. I think that clarity is needed. If we do not do that, LEPs will end up where TECs, industrial development boards and RDAs ended up.
Q172 Stephen Williams: There has been a very top-down conversation about mayors, MPs and leaders-I think it is inconceivable that the leader of Birmingham city council, for instance, would not be part of the constitutional convention as well as the Mayor of Bristol-but do you think that the people of Toxteth, Pudsey and Clifton really are seized by this as an issue? Are you having to draft lots of letters for your members to angry citizens saying, "What we really need is a constitutional convention because Liverpool, Leeds and Bristol haven’t got enough power"?
Ged Fitzgerald: That is a great question. My view on this is that if you ask people today-this is perhaps implicit in your question-they would not comment because they would not have a view, but if there was pre-information about what the current situation really is, as opposed to how it is played out in the media or in popular conversations, so that there was therefore an information basis to the question-a rationale and an explanation given as to why what is being considered for proposal will be considered for proposal-I think we would get a different response. I speak as the person who ran the counting office for the North-East referendum in 2004. I am absolutely of the view now, as I was eight years ago, that the reason for the out-turn-which was legitimate, of course-was that what was on offer did not make sense to people. That underpins your question. If what is made available to people through discussion, information, awareness-raising and so on makes sense to people, then I think you would have a different answer to your question.
Tom Riordan: I would absolutely agree with that. We have people who are absolutely bothered about the way the bus companies are operating in our area, for example. It is something that affects them daily, and they want more say over it. They want to do something about it. If we said, "Are you interested in the governance structure of the UK?" they would not be, but if we said, "Do you want more control over the way the bus operates?" definitely they would be, so I think it is how we say it.
I always think people can usually sniff out when something is really on offer, and that has been the problem with the questions that have been asked, whether about directly elected mayors or the North-East referendum. People knew that there was not really much more power on offer, in reality, hence the results that we got. If you ask a different question, which you have done in Scotland, London and Wales, people will answer in a different way. If it is about genuinely passing power, which people will have more say over, from the centre down to a locality, they are interested.
Will Godfrey: I think that is right. Certainly from my point of view, it will be interesting to see in Bristol what the difference is between the turnout for the referendum and the turnout for the mayoral election. That will be interesting feedback on the process that we go through over the next few months. Like Tom and Ged, my experience is that most communities want their living environment to be the best possible. What they do, generally speaking, if they have problems is come to MPs and councillors, because they see those people as the people who have some influence and can try to change things. I guess that people tend to get engaged with processes when they want something done. The people who are disengaged and perhaps feel as though they are not able to do that are the people I am interested in trying to make sure that we stimulate, to ensure that everybody has equality of the opportunity to have the best living environment that they possibly can. That is what drives us as individual public officials every day of our lives.
Q173 Stephen Williams: Do you think that the nature of a constitutional convention-obviously there has to be a certain size of participant, otherwise it will get completely unwieldy-means that it has to be a bit top-down, leading to endorsement in a referendum? The way you all answered the questions was about the end of the process, about endorsing or rejecting a proposal that has been arrived at by others-politicians, or maybe business leaders. Or do you think that it needs to be a mass-participation exercise? If you do, how would your cities facilitate a mass-participation exercise?
Will Godfrey: I think there are probably ways of doing both. I think it is right that if you have any constitutional convention, if you have a membership, it has to have some democratic legitimacy, so it probably has to be rooted in local MPs and local politicians. We all do public engagement events for different issues across our cities all the time, and there is absolutely no reason why that should not happen. We do that regularly for various issues; you know yourself, Mr Williams, about things we do across the city. There is no reason why you cannot match those two things together and get some engagement from communities, but membership of any convention has to be rooted in those people who have been democratically elected.
Q174 Stephen Williams: We all know-the answers might be similar-that you could probably quite easily get 50 to 100 people to turn up to a meeting in an area about parking charges, to take an example that we would probably all be familiar with. Would we really get mass participation from the citizens of our major cities on the power that local councillors should have vis-à-vis their MPs?
Tom Riordan: Probably not, but I think it depends on the way we tell the story. Certainly in the North of England, there is an increasing feeling about the relative powers and resources that Scotland, in particular, has.
Stephen Williams: That Scotland has?
Tom Riordan: That Scotland has.
Q175 Stephen Williams: What about London?
Tom Riordan: London probably to a lesser extent, I would say, but people are still aware of that. They are very aware of the Mayor of London as a key figure in the country. I think if you told the story in the right way, people would be interested. You would not get mass response, but as Will said, if we can weave it into the way that we are consulting with people about other things, I think there are lots of ways we can do it.
Ged Fitzgerald: I completely agree with all that. For me, it is the case. If the case is coherent, clear and well intentioned, people will-taking Tom’s language from a bit earlier-see through things. People are not as daft as maybe we all try to make out. It is about what is on offer. The engagement would follow whatever the answer is to the "What’s on offer?" question; that, with respect, is why I answered Mr Flynn’s earlier question the way I did. Again, the risk is that you go to the structural question-yes or no-rather than to "Why is what is on offer going to be on offer?", and the kinds of points that I was making a little earlier.
Q176 Stephen Williams: Those were things that I was interested in asking. Our brief says that the Hansard Society claims that people are less interested and engaged in politics. You can measure that in all sorts of ways, and they happened to have alighted on the number of people who sign petitions, but from my experience, in terms of the number of people who write to me as an MP, that has only ever gone in one direction in the past seven years, and that is up. I assume that you have data on the number of people who are engaged with your councils and how much resource you have to put behind correspondence or dealing with petitions in this internet era, when everyone can just e-mail something off. Has this engagement from the public to your councils gone up in the way that parliamentarians have experienced?
Will Godfrey: I would say yes, personally, from my experience. I cannot remember a council meeting in the time I have been in Bristol, which is just over three years, when we have not had significant public representation on issues, just in the context of the number of letters that we get. That continues to increase. We get petitions probably to every single council meeting.
Q177 Stephen Williams: Are more people engaged in, for instance, the planning issues? Sir Merrick mentioned that controversial planning decisions had been made by the Government. When I was a member of a planning committee, you used to read people’s hand-written letters that came in. You could actually do it, because relatively few people chose to do that. When I first became an MP, I could read the letters that came in. I can’t now, because hundreds of them come in via e-mail. Have more people engaged with what local government does within its existing powers, such as planning and licensing, over the past decade? Does it matter more to them, or is it easier now for them to contact you and your councillors?
Tom Riordan: Yes. I would say that there has been an increase. I do not think we should underestimate the amount of people who are not engaged. That massively shows in the ballot box and other ways. But yes, there has been an increase, with social media and e-mail. I am on Twitter-
Stephen Williams: You are?
Tom Riordan: I am. I regularly get asked questions about individual issues, and I get them into the system. We need to try to make ourselves more accessible in terms of that new era and the way that particularly a new generation of people want to communicate. I think there has been an increase, but there is lots more work to do in terms of engaging people even more.
Ged Fitzgerald: Again, following the same kind of line that Will and Tom have taken, in the earlier part of my career, local government was very poor at engaging with citizens and taxpayers other than those who were motivated to complain-typically, people making representations about planning issues. I think we have got better at that, and the new forms of social media definitely help. Internet access and e-mail obviously help.
Speaking for Liverpool, the budget challenges that we have faced in the past few years have absolutely catalysed that. Liverpool, under its previous leader-now the Mayor-took what I thought was a brave decision at the time: to make absolutely transparent the whole budget-making process. All the options that professionals like me generated for politicians to consider through the budget process went online. Nearly all the conversations regarding the budget took place in public and were webcast. That is a big step forward-a brave step. Having done it, you cannot go back; you cannot slip back into the old, smoke-filled rooms in which some of the stuff used to take place. I think there is a direction of travel on that.
I am also taken by Will’s point earlier, which is that generally-apart from planning issues, licensing, antisocial behaviour issues or reporting a streetlight or pothole issue-there is still a gap, in terms of democratic engagement as everybody in this room would prefer it to be, rather than as it actually is. We have to work smarter and better.
Q178 Chair: Thank you, Stephen.
I think Stephen was asking a bunch of questions about demand-led, or public demand for, this stuff. I know Andrew frequently asks the question that he did as a reality check for witnesses, just to ensure that people are not totally operating in isolation. The other side of that coin is leadership. We are faced with a difficult situation coming up. There is a multi-speed UK at the moment, and one part of it, which is very highly geared, is potentially going to go a lot faster, in respect of the constituent parts of the UK. I am talking about the Scottish referendum. There are real and serious policy decisions to be made, whatever the public are saying in my city or yours.
If you follow the line of logic through the questioning this morning, some of it is that if we have a constitutional convention, it will see that there are parts of the United Kingdom that have a devolved settlement, and one major part-England-that does not. Traditionally, that was always philosophically handled by regionalism. Regionalism suffered a very serious setback.
As for where we have got to this morning, I would characterise your views as being in favour of more voluntarist, bottom-up development by local authorities into some sort of sub-regional or city region possibilities, which would not be imposed, but would develop; and/or local authorities in England could be the agents of that devolved settlement. That is my very rough and ready summary. I therefore have a question for you as leaders, and I do not mean political leaders-I know the difference. I have been on both sides of that fence, and I know where I have been more powerful, but we won’t go there. Are you ready? Are the cities ready for the potential responsibility that could come your way within two years of being the agents of devo-max, effectively, in England? Are you up to it? I know it is very early, and I know it may never happen, but are you ready and prepared for that possibility? Are you thinking about that at the moment?
Ged Fitzgerald: I would answer no, we are not ready today. Are we up for it? Absolutely.
Tom Riordan: I would just say one thing about your summary, which was absolutely spot on. The danger with what you describe is that people pick out the sub-regional element; they say that there is another tier going in, and therefore there will be more politicians and more bureaucrats, and it will have to cost more money. It is the opposite of that that I think we are advocating. We are advocating working with the grain of what we have in those two democratic tiers and strengthening the local one.
I do not think we are absolutely ready, but I see in local government generally that perception goes way behind reality. Sir Merrick mentioned the LGA surveys done. People have twice as much confidence in local government as they do in central systems at the moment. When I look around the table at the sort of authorities we work with to get things done on the city deal in our city regions, they are big organisations with some very talented people and good capacity. I was with North Yorkshire yesterday. I think that the county is generally very well run-a very good organisation. We certainly could move in two years to that position when we are ready.
Will Godfrey: I would echo what Tom and Ged have said, in the sense that I think local government has a really good history of stepping up to the challenges that people give it. The city deal is a very good example of how we were challenged to be ambitious and innovative, and I think that if you look around at all the city deals, they are ambitious and innovative. We have a real history of delivering on different issues. Are we organisationally ready to do things today? Maybe not. Are we prepared and able to step up to the challenge? Absolutely. I think the record across the whole sector demonstrates that we can do that.
Chair: Thank you all very much indeed. We really appreciate you sparing your time today. The evidence has been first class and has given us lots of food for thought. We will continue our efforts to pull together a report on the need for a constitutional convention. I very much hope that I can reinforce our wish to hear from SOLACE collectively on where it might see this going. In parallel, we are doing an inquiry into the codification of local government rights and powers, so that it cannot be taken back, if that were the way the Committee wanted to go. Again, we would very much appreciate your individual and collective evidence on that before evidence-taking closes. Tom, Ged, Will, thank you so much for your time this morning.