THE Liberal Democrats have signalled their intention to win more decision-making powers for the north, as the party’s spring conference at York’s Barbican Centre ended.
Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg and party president Tim Farron said cities and regions outside London – including rural areas – should have more control over their destinies through greater devolution of power and influence from Whitehall.
The three-day conference, which closed yesterday, was dominated by immigration and the UK’s future in Europe, but delegates also approved policies on protecting pubs and tackling food poverty, including supporting emergency hardship payments to claimants struggling because of benefit sanctions and an “urgent” review of links between food poverty and benefit errors, stoppages and delays.
In a question-and-answer session, Deputy Prime Minister Mr Clegg said: “I have been constantly pushing to see greater power and greater control of money being devolved down – devolution is in my DNA.
“I want to see the City Deal approach extended across the country, to other cities, rural areas and urban areas. The bottom-up approach is a better way of promoting decentralisation than some great ideological blueprint.”
Mr Farron – a northern MP tipped as a future Lib Dem leader – told The Press the economy could not grow by focusing on “a small corner of Britain”.
He said: “We have achieved a lot for the north, but we can do an awful lot more – it’s an issue of fairness, but also about what's right for Britain.
“For decades, the north has not got the deal it should and there has been a failure to make use of regions beyond London and the south-east, the north in particular, and create more balance. When we have a housing crisis and need to create jobs and growth and improve the economy, it’s nonsense that everything is concentrated around London.”
Mr Clegg’s speech yesterday criticised “ungenerous, backwards-looking politics” over Europe and warned “pulling up the drawbridge” by leaving the European Union would wreck the UK's economy.
In the Q&A, he also said the country needed “more sustained housebuilding over a prolonged period”, with supply and demand currently “totally imbalanced”.
Dorset councillor Ros Kayes, who moved the food poverty motion, said: “Nobody in the 21st century should be dependent on charity for the necessities of life”. She called for grants that food banks could access to provide "emergency relief" to families.
Hardship payments were inserted instead following an amendment by Mike German, who chairs the Parliamentary Party Committee on Work and Pensions.
He said: “Food banks should not replace the welfare state – they should complement it, but they should not be the alternative.”
The pubs policy was tabled by Leeds North West MP Greg Mulholland and unanimously approved. It includes changes to tenancy laws and rule changes requiring planning permission to demolish or convert a pub.
Mr Mulholland, who also spoke in an informal meeting at The Rook and Gaskill pub in Lawrence Street on Saturday night, said it was “absurd” that planning laws allowed pubs to be sold and converted “behind the backs of communities”.
He said: “Some of the behaviour of large pub companies would make even the most hard-nosed banker baulk.”
Conference shows York is ‘open for business’
YORK will use the Liberal Democrat conference as a springboard to attract more high-profile events to the city, tourism bosses have said.
About 1,400 delegates attended the event at the Barbican, expected to be worth about £600,000 to the city.
Lib Dem president Tim Farron said it was the party’s best-attended spring conference since they came into Government and delegates tweeted positive views of York throughout the weekend.
Next year’s Lib Dem spring conference switches to Liverpool, but Visit York’s head Kate McMullen said: “We need to use this to go to more national associations, political parties, unions and other organisations and show we can successfully deliver events of this scale.
“It’s a real opportunity for us to sell York as a conference and events venue and promote its fantastic reputation as a leisure tourism destination. Business tourism is hugely important – it accounts for 25 per cent of the economic impact of tourism in York – and as we want to double the value of tourism over ten years, we need to target high-value areas.
Tony Watson, the Barbican’s sales and marketing director, said: “The Barbican is an outstanding facility for conferencing and it’s great that the investment in the venue has been recognised with this leading national conference.
“Our team has been committed to ensuring every delegate has a superb time in York, and we’re sure this will lead to additional large conferences visiting the venue in the future."
Insider’s view of conference
• Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander’s speech provided the perfect excuse for a covert Monty Python tribute. As soon as he said: “People ask: what have the Liberal Democrats ever done for us?”, the mutterings in the heights of the auditorium began. “The aqueduct...sanitation...the roads...”
• York being new to the conference circuit meant some delegates had a bit of trouble getting their bearings. But that didn’t excuse the activist who, while standing near enough to the Barbican windows to know better, queried: “So how do you get to these Bar Walls, then?”
• The Lib Dems’ stance on the EU is hardly ambiguous, but they certainly wanted to hammer it home – even the password for the official conference wi-fi was “ineurope”.
• The weekend did not pass without several comments on the “irony” of the Lib Dems being the first political party to hold their conference at the Barbican - given the controversy over the venue when the same party was in charge of City of York Council
• Coincidence or crafty promotional activity? Scattered around the Barbican were flyers for Cleggs, suppliers of “a wide and eclectic range of home and gift items”
• Politicians want the right people in place when their motions are being debated, which might explain why Leeds North West MP Greg Mulholland was quick to apologise for his motion on the future of British pubs being scheduled for 9.15am on a Saturday.