Keir Starmer To Hand ‘New Powers’ to Mayors and Regions as He Extends Olive Branch to Sadiq Khan

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Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 21/03/2024 - 3:27am in

The Labour party is set to unveil more details of its plans to devolve powers away from Westminster, Byline Times understands.

Some details of the proposals are expected to be outlined in a speech by the party's Deputy Leader Angela Rayner later this week.

The intervention follows notable tensions between the Labour leader and England's two most high-profile elected Mayors, Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham.

Khan and Starmer clashed last summer over the London mayor's plans to implement a now-enacted low emission zone in outer London, while Burnham has criticised Starmer's decision to U-turn on his plans for green investment and House of Lords reform.

Starmer's appearance earlier this week alongside Khan for the launch of the London Mayor’s re-election campaign marked an apparent attempt to heal divisions after a period of real tensions between the two politicians.

The Labour leader’s very public criticism of Khan’s flagship decision to bring in an Ultra Low Emission Zone in Outer London last summer was met with significant anger by some of those around the Mayor.

At the time, sources close to Khan expressed frustration at Starmer’s decision to attack a policy which by that point was just weeks away from being rolled out. They also warned that Starmer’s intervention risked giving oxygen to the Conservative party’s anti-ULEZ campaign in the then upcoming Uxbridge by-election.

Their warning appeared to pan out, with the Conservatives pulling off a surprise win in Uxbridge and Rishi Sunak using the result as justification to ditch much of his own Government’s green agenda. Half a year on and Khan believes his original policy has been vindicated.

“When we brought in ULEZ in central London there were people who were very hostile and anti and the truth is that the sky didn’t fall in” Khan told this paper.

“And the great news is that 19 out of 20 cars seen driving into [the new zone] now on an average day are compliant [with ULEZ]… and this has transformed the air in our city.”

Repairing Relations

The two men’s appearance at a London community centre on Monday appeared to be attempt to move on from the row.

It was particularly notable that in his speech, Starmer praised his “friend" Khan's agenda on cleaning up London’s air, saying that “I say to people who challenge me on cleaner air, I’ve got two kids. They’re 15 and 13. I wouldn’t give them dirty water to drink and I wouldn’t want them to breathe in dirty air.”

However, he failed to specifically endorse the ULEZ policy. A spokesman for Starmer later told this paper that the Labour leaders’s view on the policy “hasn't changed”.

A source close to Khan admitted that relations between City Hall and the Labour leader's office had been strained by the ULEZ row. 

Other policy differences do still remain between Khan and Starmer.

An example of these came on Monday when Starmer was asked about Khan’s proposals to implement a form of rent controls in London. The Labour leader poured cold water on the idea, saying that “it’s not our policy at the moment.”

However, despite these ongoing differences, Khan’s team retain hope that a Starmer Government could prove pivotal for London.

Over the past eight years Khan has been a regular target of successive Conservative Governments, who have tightly held the purse strings on new London infrastructure projects. Khan's recent treatment by former Conservative Chairman Lee Anderson, who was accused of making a series of Islamophobic comments about the London mayor, was seen as emblematic of this.

City Hall hope that a relations with central government would be transformed if Starmer enters Downing Street.

In particular Khan's campaign pledge to build tens of thousands of new council homes is seen as lining up with the party's own national proposals to increase housebuilding.

Yet as well as being potentially more amenable to investing in London, Khan is also pinning his hopes on an incoming Labour Prime Minister handing over big new powers to the Mayor.

“I'm really optimistic about the next Labour government devolving more powers and resources to the cities and regions,” Khan told this paper.

“The key things we’re talking about are in relation to planning, skills and the economy.”

Khan pointed to proposals by the London Finance Commission to give the Mayor new powers to raise infrastructure funding as the sort of proposals he would be lobbying Starmer to adopt in office.

“We've done the heavy lifting on this so we're hoping in the first 100 days that you'll see the fruits of [those proposals].”

A spokesman for Starmer told this paper that the Labour leader accepted “the need for more powers for regional mayors” on areas including skills and welfare.

Devolution 2.0?

Labour proposals to devolve additional powers to the Mayor were set out in a report for the party by Gordon Brown two years ago, but little has been confirmed since.

However, with a general election looming later this year, Labour sources suggested that some details of these new devolution proposals would be set out by the party’s deputy leader Angela Rayner during a speech later this week.

Labour's devolution proposals are unlikely to be as impactful as anything pursued by Tony Blair during his first term as Prime Minister, however. The big wave of devolution rolled out by the then Labour Prime Minister was transformative, creating devolved government in both Scotland and Wales, as well as rolling out regional mayors and authorities across England.

Little proposed so far by Starmer appears to match that level of ambition, with previous plans for a new “senate of the regions” to replace the House of Lords, also reportedly being reconsidered by Starmer’s team.

However, with Labour dampening down expectations of big new spending proposals, the devolution agenda poses an opportunity for an incoming Starmer government to make real differences to the political landscape of the UK, at relatively little expense.

It could also help to contrast with the failure of the Government's own promise to "level up" the country. A Parliamentary report last week found that 90% of projects promised by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson remained years away from completion.

A spokesman for Starmer told journalists on Wednesday that the party would ditch the phrase "levelling up" if they form the next Government.