When setting out his devolution agenda in May, the Chancellor was clear that the government wanted to devolve power in order to unleash the economic potential of UK city-regions, and that he was only interested in doing substantial devolution deals with city-regions willing to accept a combined authority and mayor. In his own words, “he wouldn’t settle for less”. Yet as we approach decision time on this round of devolution deals, we may be about to see a majority of agreements struck not with city-regions, but with much bigger areas – many of which bear little resemblance to the true economic geography of the country.
How have we reached this point? In part, the answer lies in the long term inability of cities and their surrounding areas to align their political and economic geographies, let alone reach an agreement on something as significant as the introduction of a city-region mayor. As a result, as the Chancellor cranked up political pressure on places to present a settled geography over the summer, or risk missing out on more powers come the winter, a variety of different compromises have been cobbled together, meaning that of the biggest cities outside of London and Greater Manchester, only Liverpool has presented a substantive bid to the government solely on the basis of its city-region geography.
Perhaps most strikingly, there are six separate bids from authorities across Yorkshire alone, while others have chosen to expand the geography of their bid to include other parts of the county or region – an approach that has underpinned the North East Combined Authority for some time, and now appears to have been adopted in other parts of the country such as the East Midlands, where Derby and Nottingham are bidding together with Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire county councils, and Leicester are bidding together with Leicestershire council. On the South Coast too, Portsmouth and Southampton are part of a joint Hampshire and the Isle of Wight bid which includes 15 different authorities.
Moving away from primarily urban deals may make it easier politically to reach agreement locally, and, given the government’s small majority in the Commons and the concentration of Tory MPs in rural hinterlands, nationally too. But it also has the potential to damage the scope for equipping our city-regions with the powers they need over the long term.
For example, should the government decide to strike a Greater Manchester-style devolution agreement with the whole of Yorkshire rather than the Sheffield or Leeds City Regions – a possibility most recently raised by Secretary of State Greg Clark MP and which would, as things stand, require a mayor for the region – the precedent that strategic power and funding would flow down to the regional level would be set for future rounds of devolution. This would reduce the prospect of strategic powers over areas like housing, transport and planning being aligned at the scale at which the economy actually functions across those city-regions, and would likely leave major urban centres competing for profile, attention and “their share” of the prize locally.
In this sense, a substantial devolution deal for an area that is agreed at too broad a geography could actually mark a backward step when it comes to supporting UK cities to fulfil their potential. That’s why it’s so important that as talks progress, national and local decisionmakers pause to reflect why we’re even doing devolution in the first place. If the government is to deliver on its aim to boost the economic performance of UK city-regions, then it must remain true to the initial criteria it set post-Election, and be clear and consistent in the signals it sends out to urban leaders during negotiations and in the decisions it takes over the coming month.