The Labour leader of Birmingham City Council has warned that his own party failed to devolve power and funding to councils – and praised the Coalition for leading the way in developing “localist” policies.
Sir Albert Bore, leader of Birmingham City Council, urged Labour shadow ministers to beat the Tories and Lib Dems at their own game and let Britain’s big cities take their role as “regional capitals” capable of driving economic growth.
He was speaking at a fringe event during Labour’s annual conference in Manchester, where delegates celebrated Labour’s success in winning back control of Birmingham in May’s local elections.
Party leader Ed Miliband said he was “proud” of Birmingham Labour Party, at a reception for local MPs, activists and councillors on the first evening of conference.
And Shadow Local Government Secretary Hilary Benn highlighted Birmingham Council’s decision to increase pay for its lowest-paid staff by introducing a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour, in his speech to the conference floor.
But Sir Albert warned that Labour failed to give cities the autonomy they needed when it was in power at Westminster.
And he also warned that Labour’s current plans did not go far enough.
The current government has agreed “city deals” with England’s big cities, allowing them to take more control of services such as transport and skills.
Mr Benn has promised to extend scheme so that deals are also signed with smaller cities, towns and county councils.
But Sir Albert said Labour should instead promise more devolution for major cities. He said: “If we are honest here then to say that the last Labour government disappointed when it came to localism might be just a little bit too softly put.
“I think the last Labour government was concerned about arguments that localism would create too much inequality of provision, forgetting that in order to tackle inequality you have to respond to inequality differently in different places.
“It’s centralisation that actually prevents our ability to deal with inequality and hence perpetuates that inequality.”
He continued: “I don’t like saying this, but in many ways the current government has shown more commitment to localism and we have to recognise that and put that right in the manifesto in 2015.”
But he also criticised the current government for “a partial and lop-sided approach” to devolution.
He said: “They are very keen on telling us how to collect our rubbish, on what to pay our chief executives and what not to do in terms of publishing local newspapers.”
Sir Albert urged Labour to give councils the power to raise their own funding, for example by introducing local taxes or borrowing to invest in housing.
But he added: “Labour’s response however has not been particularly inspiring so far.
“A truly radical response would be not to call for city deals for rural market towns and shires but to take forward a genuine devolution of powers to at least the large cities, the drivers of economic recovery.”
Creating a less centralised country would make it possible to “rebalance” the economy – reducing the nation’s dependence on London and the south east – he said. “The system of government we have is crucial to how balanced or unbalanced the economy is.
“We are perhaps the most centralised country in the whole of Europe.
“Most other countries in Europe have strong regional systems of government centred on their regional capital cities.”