Devolution at the heart of UK government's first legislative programme, expert says

Out-Law News | 28 May 2015 | 10:48 am | 1 min. read

The UK's new Conservative government will "set in motion the biggest transfer of power from Westminster and Whitehall in history", an expert has said, after it committed to regional devolution in England and more powers for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Four of the 25 bills announced by the Queen during the state opening of the new UK parliament would deliver more powers to the English cities and local government as well as the devolved administrations, said major infrastructure planning expert Robbie Owen of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com. The government also intends to pursue the bill governing construction of the first stage of the planned new high speed rail line, HS2, he said.

"The government's aspiration to rebalance the economy through regional devolution is a first for the nation," said Owen. "We expect the bills to assist with the 'northern powerhouse' project, and with the planning and delivery generally of local infrastructure for communities and businesses."

"Furthermore, the High Speed Rail Bill is to continue its passage through parliament, and is a sure signal that the government is determined to begin construction of phase one of the new line in 2017," he said.

Announced by chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne in his first speech since re-election earlier this month, the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill would give English cities that choose to appoint a directly-elected mayor more power over their own housing, transport, planning and policing policies. The policy would allow other city areas to follow the lead of Greater Manchester, which is due to appoint an interim mayor on Friday ahead of an election in 2017. A new Buses Bill, which would allow combined authority areas with directly-elected mayors to be responsible for running their own local bus services, has also been announced.

The government has announced plans for a Scotland Bill, through which the Scottish government would be given new tax and welfare powers as recommended by the Smith Commission on Scottish devolution last year. There would also be further devolution of powers to Wales under a planned Wales Bill, including more powers for the Welsh Assembly over energy, transport and Welsh local government elections. A Northern Ireland Bill would give effect to the Stormont House agreement in Northern Ireland, and include provision for independent investigations into "unsolved Troubles-related deaths", according to the UK government.

The Queen's speech also contained a commitment to press forward with legislation that, once finalised, would enable work to begin on the London to Birmingham section of HS2. The High Speed Rail (London to West Midlands) Bill was introduced by the previous UK government, and is expected to receive Royal Assent by the end of 2016. The bill would give the government powers to construct and operate the line, the first phase of which is due for completion in 2026. A planned second phase connecting Birmingham and the north of England could then follow by 2033.