Could Miliband deliver devolved powers?

In a major speech, Labour leader Ed Miliband has promised a devolution revolution for towns and cities with historic new powers over transport. But will he deliver? Our man in Westminster has a healthy dose of scepticism, based on opposition hopes compared with the harsh reality of government..

Ed Miliband is promising us a great devolution revolution. In a major speech last week he told us that “devolving power from Whitehall to our towns and cities is essential to generate the new jobs that we need.” He promised us that under a Labour government “cities and towns that come together with local businesses will be given historic new powers over transport, housing, skills and economic development.”

Great stuff. Except I don’t believe a word of it. I have absolutely no doubt that Ed Miliband meant every word of what he said, that he is full of intent and resolve. Just as every leader of the opposition is as they try to persuade the electorate to vote their party into government.

Every leader of the opposition has promised devolution from Whitehall. If these promises had been fulfilled, by now Whitehall would barely exist. But Whitehall is alive and kicking with 23 government departments, 132 Secretaries of State and junior ministers, 48 Parliamentary Private Secretaries and 74 Special Advisers. David Cameron promised us a great devolution of power too. Remember his ‘localism’ agenda? We were promised a great devolution of power down to the lowest level possible, because local communities know what’s best for them. It hasn’t happened, has it?

And nor will it under a Labour government. The simple fact is that central government can’t give up control. Crucially, local government is hugely dependant on central government for money, so unless there is a major reform in local government finance, with local authorities genuinely free to raise whatever they need – or can persuade the local electorate to cough up – then the kind of devolution revolution promised by Ed Miliband simply won’t, perhaps even can’t, happen. As with every opposition leader, Ed Miliband will find that the promises made in the comfort of opposition run up against the harsh reality of government.

Last week Mary Creagh, Labour’s transport spokeswoman, gave a speech in which she said that decisions on Labour’s transport policies would have to be taken in “the context of austerity.” Quite so.

How you expect to deliver a major devolution of power to towns and cities, when there is increasingly less money from central government to support local government, and in the absence of any major reform to local government funding which Ed Miliband did not offer, I do not know.

Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps I should give Ed Miliband the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he really has come up with some blueprint for reform that will not only be delivered but will work. After all, his thinking is being informed by Lord Adonis and, as we know, Lord Adonis is one of the cleverest individuals in the party. But I’m not holding my breath. I’ve heard too many promises on devolution, none of which have been honoured, Scotland and Wales aside, to think that anything is going to change.

Back to Mary Creagh’s speech. It didn’t really tell us very much about Labour’s emerging policies for transport, but with its policy reviews not yet complete, I wouldn’t have expected it to.

We had the usual rhetoric about the high level of transport fares, as if this was somehow the fault of the operators, so I say once again to Labour, as I said last week: show me a commercial business that deliberately adopts a pricing policy designed to deter customers. My threat to run naked down Whitehall should such a business be found, has not yet had to be honoured!

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