Mr Redwood’s contribution to the debate on Devolution in England, 2 March 2015

Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): We are debating devolution in England, but if we are to have more devolution in England, we first need devolution to England. We must make sure that there is an English level of decision making for the strategic matters, and English Ministers who can then decide which matters could be properly devolved within their strategic framework.

If we take the case of transport, it is predominantly or wholly an English Department, yet it is treated as if it were a Department of the Union. But our Ministers have no control or influence over the roads of Northern Ireland or Scotland. They deal predominantly with English issues. In the new looser federation that we are going to create in the next Parliament, we need to identify the need for England to have rights and opportunities that equal these powers that the other parts of the country have already gained or will gain in the more generous devolution settlements now being offered to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

There is a good case for the English Transport Department to devolve some more powers to unitary, county and borough councils in the country. On the issue of railways, for example, we have a very expensive nationalised industry, which decides on the track, the track maintenance, the track investment and the principal train routes and is responsible for the signalling and most of the stations. These are very important issues for local communities.

They are massive budgets, but I found it extremely difficult as a local representative to get the ear of Network Rail and to get the right attention paid to the railway line in my area, even though my voters are producing a great deal of tax revenue which is going into Network Rail. A case can be made that there should be more devolved power to counties, boroughs, unitaries and maybe even to MPs over railway budgets, which can have a very important impact on the face of the town, the nature of the countryside and the commuter and freight services available.

We must be careful not to devolve too much. For the roads system, it is right that there is a strategic highway network of motorways and larger trunk roads which is controlled at the England level, masquerading as the Union level, and that those decisions should be properly taken by an English Minister responsible to this House, spending moneys collected in the normal national way and going through the national budgets. I hope that in due course we will have a proper English devolved budget, just as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland do.

In my area, we have a motorway that is a local road, and the council is responsible for it. It is a very useful and good motorway, but it stops at the boundary with Oxfordshire and Reading. Most of us want it to go over the river and on to more useful places as part of our economic growth and development. We are making a huge contribution in our area, with a lot of extra housing and jobs, and we need more road space, but Oxfordshire will not allow us to put a bridge over the river and take the road on to other parts of our burgeoning area and up towards Oxford. That may be a case where a devolved power should be given back. I think that my unitary borough would be happy to surrender control of the motorway in return for a promise from a Government Minister to finish the job and make the motorway go to other places so that it could take more of our traffic.

At the moment, a very large amount of traffic has to go through the neighbouring constituency of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in the small and beautiful village of Sonning, which has a single-track bridge over a beautiful stretch of the river. That takes a massive amount of commuter and freight traffic that ought to go on a motorway-standard bridge, away from a place of such great beauty, but we cannot do that because of the way in which parts of local government relate to one another. Those are two examples: one where we could devolve more once we had the right powers in England, and one where we might want to devolve less to get a better strategic answer at the national level.

The health service is also primarily or wholly an English Department. It is called the Department of Health, but it should really be called the Department of English Health because its Ministers do not run the health service in Scotland, in particular—although in the recent debates on Scottish devolution some people seemed not to understand that and to think that Scotland’s vote would somehow have an impact on their health service when it has been devolved to the Scottish Parliament. If we are going to pursue devolution, English Ministers should ask the question that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has asked, and started to answer, in the case of Manchester. If it makes sense for Manchester to have more control over health budgets at local authority level to try to deal with the big border issues between social care and health, it must make sense for other parts of England to have exactly the same type of thing.

All my life in active politics and in government, as a local government Minister and in other roles such as Secretary of State for Wales, I was very conscious that there were always border issues between the UK-wide nationally controlled health service and local government, dealing with social care. Both sides were prone to blame each other. The health service would say, “We could get our costs down and put more people through our hospitals if only local government did a better job on providing care facilities for people who should leave hospital,” and local government would say, “Our budgets have been starved because so much money goes to health, but perhaps that isn’t the right priority, because it is a lot more expensive to keep someone in a hospital bed for a few extra days when they do not need the urgent care any more than it is to provide them with good care in a care home without all the medical staff and additions that you have in a hospital.”

There has always been that problem, and I look forward to seeing the more detailed work and the results of the negotiations, because it would be good if there could be a new solution. Once again, however, we need to make sure that the right things are defined at the England level, because it is still meant to be a national health service, although there are now going to be several different national health services because of Scottish and other devolution.

In relation to England, I think that a lot of our voters in England want there to be national standards, a national level of service, national protocols and national agreements, so quite a lot needs to be settled by an English national Minister sitting in the English Health Department. However, we can see whether we can devolve certain things. It would be really good to have a new and novel solution to the cross-border issues between social care and health care.

The third Department that is already clearly an English Department is the Department for Communities and Local Government—the origin of this debate. The Select Committee has produced an interesting report to influence English local government Ministers. They must make sure that they have unrestricted English control over English local government, and I am sure that many of them, in this Government and successor Governments, will be interested in exploring the big issue of how many more things can reasonably be left to councillors and their serving officers to decide.

I look forward to there being more things and I have suggested one, namely railways, but we need to be realistic and understand that people also want a national agreed level of service. They also want to know that, when a decision in one place has a consequence on other places, people above the fray of the locality will be making the decisions. Not all the decisions will go downwards; some will have to go upwards.

Above all, we need justice for England. We need English votes for English issues and to make sure that England has a voice and can decide the things that apply only to England.

 

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  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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