Suddenly everyone seems to be talking about devolution.
Clearly the Scottish independence referendum has had a galvanising effect and now it seems every political party is competing and setting out their own stall.
As a Liberal Democrat this is all rather surreal as devolving power has always been on our agenda. This catch up by other political parties is of course welcome. Indeed as the expression goes imitation is always the greatest form of flattery!
And what is happening at present is not just empty rhetoric. It really is the case that on the ground some exciting developments are taking place. However what is clear is that real devolution only takes place when agreements are made across political parties.
One clear example of this is the pace of devolution in Greater Manchester. While it might seem unlikely that a Conservative Chancellor and Labour-dominated councils would see eye-to-eye, in reality a spirit of consensus has broken out. The outcome has been that a devolution package has been developed which now overtakes London – most notably in health and social care.
In complete contrast the tone of the debate in Scotland has become increasingly resentful and this will hinder, not help, the devolution process there. It is unfortunate that after the referendum, the Better Together camp went back to being split along party lines in their plans for Scotland.
And while the SNP tells voters it is the voice for Scotland, I actually think the reduction of multi-party representation in Scotland, if we are to believe the pollsters, will make it more difficult to reach a multi-party consensus for devolution after the General Election.
The good news for London is that so far there has been a good consensus on what the next steps for the capital should be. This is in large part due to the excellent report by the London Finance Commission, chaired by Professor Tony Travers, establishing the groundwork.
It is welcome in last week’s Budget that the capital will receive more powers over apprenticeships and further education. I would advocate going further with the full devolution of skills funding to the capital.
Another key area where devolution to London is necessary is in relation to the ambulance service. For the capital to have responsibility for its police and fire service but not its ambulance service is simply indefensible. Co-ordinating and sharing some backroom facilities amongst the emergency services could have huge benefits.
Transport is a further area where greater devolution is necessary. The higher performance of the London Overground is widely recognised. It is time all metro rail services are run by TfL.
However I believe devolution actually must go further.
Manchester is leading the way with health and social care devolution so I don’t see why London can’t follow suit. There are also interesting ideas around the partial devolution of the criminal justice system where London could learn from the experience of New York City.
Most fundamentally if devolution is to have real significance it has to involve finance. Two thirds of London’s income comes from central government grant. In complete contrast New York City receives 31% of its income from central government grant.
Personally I would like to see five property taxes – stamp duty, council tax, business rates, capital gains and the annual tax on enveloped dwellings – devolved to the capital as recommended by the London Finance Commission. Currently London only keeps 5% of tax generated in the capital.
It might surprise some people but devolving these five taxes would only increase that to 12%. Of course hand in hand with this devolution of taxes is the reduction in Treasury grants for the capital.
Devolving power is now on the agenda.
It has huge potential to allow Londoners to have a greater control over their own city, which just in itself is a good thing. However the real prize is that by doing things differently and not being shackled by Whitehall controls there will be an ability to innovate and provide better services, whether in transport, health, criminal justice or economic development.
A more devolved London will be a better London, and an empowered city able to meet our future challenges.
Caroline Pidgeon is leader of the Liberal Democrat London Assembly Group and member of the London Assembly devolution working group.