Amid all the gloom about funding cuts, there is a sense of excitement in the air around local government about new powers being promised by ministers. Communities minister Greg Clark is an advocate of devolution of powers from central government, as is George Osborne. At first, it was thought that this project would just apply to the big cities – Manchester has led the way taking on responsibility for transport, housing, health and social care. It was also expected that devolution would only apply to areas with elected mayors but the House of Lords amended the Devolution Bill to removed this condition. Cornwall broke the mould by getting powers devolved to a rural county without a mayor.
The list of bidders to the government for devolved powers has now been published. It is no surprise that Sheffield and Liverpool are in there. Telford and Wrekin has also submitted a bid. And Worcestershire, Herefordshire, and Cheshire and Warrington. Our county is surrounded by bidders. But our county leaders didn’t bid, either in collaboration with a neighbour or on its own.
This shows the lack of vision of the current administration in Shirehall. It is obsessed by the mantra of cut, cut, cut. It has only two big ideas – ip&e and the university in Shrewsbury and can’t see beyond them.
Ministers have offered us a huge opportunity to take on greater responsibility locally for our own destinies. But Shropshire Council hasn’t even taken the first step of submitting an outline bid.
Devolution could give us greater control over skills, housing, transport, and perhaps also health and social care, and the funding to go with it. We could retain all the money from local business rates, not just half as at present.
The logical path for devolution is to work with Telford and Wrekin – our health systems and emergency services are already unified. And, after all, we used to be one county. This does not mean that our councils have to be merged. Just that we increase cooperation. It doesn’t mean that have to do things in the same way here in Shropshire as they do in Telford and Wrekin. It only requires that we set out our common ambitions for the future of our county and its residents.
Of course, Telford and Wrekin council has Labour leadership and Shropshire is Conservative. I am sure that is a barrier for Shropshire Council leaders. But ambitions for devolution should rise above party politics. We need to take control of our own destinies. Almost everywhere else in England is hungry to do so. So why aren’t we?