UK Politics

Council boss warns of English devolution 'time bomb'

David Sparks, the head of the Local Government Association
Image caption Mr Sparks said calls for more financial autonomy in England would inevitably increase

The most senior council leader in England has warned of a "devolution time bomb" whatever the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum.

All the major Westminster parties have pledged to give extra powers to Scotland if it votes to stay in the UK.

But Dave Sparks, head of the Local Government Association, said this would amount to "de facto independence".

In such a scenario, he said demands for greater financial autonomy for England would "fester" unless dealt with.

Mr Sparks, the Labour leader on Dudley Council in the West Midlands, is the first Labour politician to head the LGA - which speaks on behalf of more than 300 councils in England and Wales - in a decade.

His comments come on the eve of the organisation's annual conference.

'Little box'

The LGA has called on the government to hand over responsibility for the funding of local government entirely to councils, ending the current practice of annual financial settlements from Whitehall.

Mr Sparks told Total Politics magazine that the referendum on Scotland's constitutional future in September would have "massive ramifications" for the rest of the UK, whatever its outcome.

"The English question is a time bomb," he said. "There is a huge funding gap, a huge funding discrepancy between England and Scotland and Wales and Scotland.

"Westminster MPs cannot ignore local government or consign it into a neat little silo, a neat little box. That box will blow up big time unless that funding gap is addressed and the Barnett formula is revised."

The "ready-made solution" to calls for the English regions to have greater say over their affairs, he suggested, was to hand greater powers to local government.

"The English question will not go away and it will blow up in Westminster. The fuse will be lit before the year is out. Whether it is put out will depend on future governments."

'Festering'

In the event of Scotland choosing to remain in the UK, he said the promise by both Labour and the Conservatives to give new powers over tax and benefits to the Scottish Parliament would inevitably fuel calls for more financial autonomy from Westminster across England.

"I hope Scotland remains," he added. "But if it does and you get devolution-max, de facto independence, then unless something is done in England, the English question will fester."

Mr Sparks said there had been some cases of increased "localism" in England under the current government but the devolution of powers in some areas had been effectively nullified by cuts to council budgets.

On Monday, the coalition government announced the details of £6bn in "growth deal" funding for English cities and regions to spend on infrastructure, employment and skills.

Labour has said, if elected, it would hand up to £30bn in development funds to councils and local businesses in England to spend on transport, housing and regeneration.

In his interview, Mr Sparks also said elected mayors in English cities were a "gimmick" and the government's support for the idea showed it was "not in the real world" when it came to local democracy.

The level of funding provided by the UK government to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is determined by the so-called Barnett formula. David Cameron has said any change to this framework is "not on the horizon".

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