England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

It was the Queen’s Speech but the volume was turned way down


Does the Queen’s Speech determine what will be happening in parliament over the next session? Asks Janet Sillett. Well obviously it does up to a point but it is clear that it has been heavily influenced by the EU referendum.

The government over the last few weeks has been making concessions where they have received most opposition – such as the watering down of the forced academies proposal. The uncertainty caused by the referendum is reflected possibly in how some bills are presented, such as the Bill of Rights where there was expected to be a full Sovereignty Bill. There are contentious items here but no huge controversial bill like the Health and Social Care Act for example. There is, again, no big local government bill – probably to the relief of most in the sector.

There were some gaps where there had been bills expected (or at least heavily campaigned for), such as a homelessness bill. A group of housing organisations had published proposals for a new English law, which would require councils to prevent more people from becoming homeless in the first instance. The local government minister Marcus Jones has recently said his department was “exploring options to improve the evidence base regarding what works in tackling homelessness, and to help local areas target their interventions more smartly”: legislation may be introduced at a later stage?

The details of the bills are not clear yet and several cover a potentially wide range so items could be added to during the progress of the bill. Other bills can be added at any stage. I would expect some additions to the government’s legislative programme after 23 June if we remain in the EU.

But what does the Queen’s Speech tell us about the state of play between local and central government? Not that much new – which is hardly surprising given the activity in the last year over devolution and finance reform.

Devolution does indeed run through several of these bills: the Wales Bill, Local Growth and Jobs Bill, and the Bus Services Bill.

Yet there are contradictions too. There is, for example, still the bias in favour of combined authorities with elected mayors with little justification – such as in the Buses Bill – of why an elected mayor is essential for new powers to be taken on by a combined authority.

On tackling extremism the government is saying it would consider intervention if councils fail to tackle extremism in local communities. Not a particularly cooperative approach perhaps?

There is still no sense of there being a coherent framework for devolution across the government as a whole, or even enthusiasm across all departments. And ‘devolution by default’ is not the government’s agenda currently: councils are still having to ‘bid’ for powers to the centre and conditions are placed on them if they want the maximum available.

As Jonathan Carr-West comments: “LGiU calls on Whitehall to take a more strategic approach to devolution across all government departments. Greater local autonomy in transport and taxation and enhanced powers to mayors and to the nations of the UK are consistent with the government’s devolution agenda. Announcements in children’s services, education and planning move us towards greater fragmentation of local services.”

The questions around fiscal devolution are also still not answered adequately, despite the reforms to business rates. We need more fiscal freedom for local authorities to be able to particularly invest in capital projects to promote growth. The government seems to be very reluctant to widen the ways in which councils can raise funds – yes it might be risky, but the limits to fiscal reform undermine innovation and possibly growth at the local level.

Given that the Queen’s Speech may be only an interim one before the EU referendum, perhaps local government should be thinking about what more could have been in it to make the devolution agenda stronger and sustainable.

Janet Sillett is the LGiU’s briefings manager.