Michael Gove has promised MPs that the further rollout of devolution across the United Kingdom is a key part of the government’s levelling up agenda – and one that will be detailed in the pending levelling up white paper.
But the new boss at the rebranded Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities sidestepped questions about the impact the mooted cancellation of the eastern leg of HS2, connecting Leeds with the high speed rail network, would have on the agenda.
In his first appearance at a departmental questions session since September’s reshuffle took him away from the Cabinet Office, Gove sent a strong message that ministers see the transfer of further powers from Westminster to local areas as a core to levelling up. His comments build on prime minister Boris Johnson’s July speech that flagged new “county deals” and suggest a willingness to deliver much-needed clarity.
“This government plan to expand, augment and increase devolution across the United Kingdom, and we have already begun discussions with areas interested in county deals, and we will be setting out next steps in the levelling up white paper,” Gove said.
“Expanding the model of combined authority mayors and a greater level of devolution are at the heart of making sure that local communities have strong leaders who can make a decisive difference, not least in the economic sphere.”
In a seeming reference to tomorrow’s Spending Review and Autumn Budget announcements, Gove told MPs that chancellor Rishi Sunak would be “in a position to share details of the next round of bidding for areas keen to secure county deals “a wee bit later”.
Scottish National Party MP Patricia Gibson accused the government of fundamentally undermining settlements with the devolved nations with the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020. Gove rejected the accusation and said the Scottish Government sought to take power from local authorities while the UK government sought to do the opposite.
Gibson said devolved governments were “not involved, consulted or considered” in trade deals and that Scotland was shut out of carbon capture and storage. She questioned how Gove could believe the union was a partnership of equals.
“I meet weekly with first ministers from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland,” Gove responded. “If the honourable lady were privileged enough to be able to observe those meetings, she would see that they are like a nest of singing birds. They are festivals of cordiality.
“The reality is that those who serve in the Scottish Government know that we in the UK government are their friends and partners, and Scotland has no better friends than the other citizens of the United Kingdom.”
No answer on HS2 plans
Gove’s appearance on Monday did nothing to calm concerns in Yorkshire and the East Midlands that the government is poised to cancel plans for the eastern arm of HS2 in all but name.
Chesterfield MP Toby Perkins said it had been“deeply concerning” to hear over the weekend that ministers were considering a version of HS2 that would use existing tracks. He said the great benefits HS2 offered to the East Midlands and Yorkshire would be undermined without the increased capacity and reliability that new lines would bring.
Gove replied: “The honourable gentleman makes an important point, but I will not pre-empt anything the chancellor may say later this week about the commitment we are making on infrastructure.”