General election manifestos: devolution to the already devolved?

We look at the manifestos of the SNP and Plaid Cymru to see what promises, if any, they have for their cities.

With the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Plaid Cymru running in the general election as the parties speaking to the interests of Scotland and Wales respectively, it could be expected that cities in the devolved administrations play a bigger role in manifestos than their UK-wide counterparts. Yet, this has not always been the case and much more could be done by nationalist parties to promote economic growth in their urban areas to benefit growth of the wider nation.

In this blog we analyse the extent to which parties’ pledges affect cities in Scotland and Wales in particular, and how devolution to the national level impacts further devolution to the Scottish and Welsh cities.

Since the SNP formed their first majority in Holyrood in 2011, discussions on cities have been ongoing, but from the perspective of Westminster, getting powers to Scotland has always been the priority. While in government, the SNP has supported the use of language around city regions and investigated how to make the most of them: they published an Agenda for Cities (revised in 2016); established the Scottish Cities Alliance; and promoted City Region Deals. Six years later, three city region deals (for Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness) have been signed, the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal is expected sometime soon, and three more deals are in the pipeline.

In this general election, the SNP has confirmed its commitment to city deals and will campaign to get the UK government to meet the funding requirements included in those deals. But city deals are not the same as devolution. They only offer some powers to local leaders and have not been expanded beyond their initial agreement. The challenge for Scotland is that the Local Government and Devolution Act only applies to England and Wales, so it will be down to both Holyrood and Westminster to make the most of the biggest Scottish city regions in particular by considering new governance models, and the devolution of key strategic powers.

These are important shortfalls the SNP should be mindful of if it is to deliver growth across Scotland. Of course, a national election, rather than a general one, would be the most appropriate place to discuss these issues. But if confirmed as the third UK party, the SNP should use its influence both in Westminster and in Holyrood not only to bring powers back to the devolved administration but also to unlock devolution to Scottish cities.

If the pledges made for Scottish cities by the SNP are limited, those made by Plaid Cymru for Welsh ones are non-existent.  The party mainly focuses on delivering prosperity across Wales as a whole, without any particular pledge for cities. Scotland and Wales have different devolved powers and economies, and SNP and Plaid have different political relevance, yet the role of cities as drivers of growth is still of value for Wales too. Both Cardiff and Swansea have already secured City Deals, but this should only be the first step to further devolution.

In line with their views on cities in general, all other parties don’t mention cities in devolved administrations in their manifestos, with the exception of the Conservatives. Labour – coherent with their ‘devolution where there is appetite for it’ approach – simply pledged to establish a Scottish Investment Bank to support development there, but didn’t commit to anything more specific for Welsh and Scottish cities. On the other hand, cities in the two nations received more attention in the Conservative manifesto. Indeed, if they were to win, the Conservatives would open a British Business Bank branch in Edinburgh and one in Newport and continue the investment in capital and infrastructure projects in the two nations. In addition, the Conservatives have committed to building on the Cardiff Capital Region and Swansea Deals as well as promoting cross-border economic development between the cities of Cardiff, Newport and Bristol.

Being subject to a national parliament on top of the UK-wide one is a double-edged sword for cities in devolved administrations. In principle, this should mean receiving better and more tailored attention, but in practice it often means having a third party to fight for powers with. The Scottish Parliament only has a handful of cities to deal with and this should be reflected in better deals for them. But the ‘double-devolution’ process is slowing down the pace for Scottish cities and has led to limitations to the powers they can be handed from Westminster. The Welsh settlement means that cities like Cardiff have more of an advantage, and could even follow the metro mayor route, should they wish to.

National assemblies, both in Wales and Scotland, should be keen not only to bring powers back to their nation, but also to ensure those powers won’t stop at the state level but go to the cities that can best support their national economic growth potential.

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Gordon Matheson CBE
18 June 2017 23:49

Thank you for this insightful piece. It would have been too easy to overlook the position of nationalist parties on city devolution within the context of a UK election. I'm glad you resisted that temptation! I strongly agree that a devolved parliament and government is often an additional hurdle to overcome in pursuance of city devolution, especially when the largest party of devolved government is a nationalist party with strong centralising, nation-building tendencies. One comment in the blog that I would disagree with; namely, the suggestion that the SNP 'promoted' City Deals in Scotland. It truth they were somewhat bounced into agreeing to support Glasgow's City Deal, the first in Scotland. The real promoters of the first City Deal in Scotland were Glasgow City Council and the then coalition UK government. The negotiations about the Deal took place between Glasgow and Whitehall. There was a strong suspicion that the nationalist Scottish Government would have preferred not to sign a 'cross border' City Deal with the UK government, especially on the eve of the independence referendum. They would have preferred the whole idea to just go away. The then Prime Minister, David Cameron, along with Danny Alexander, announced the agreement on Glasgow's City Deal alongside the Leader of Glasgow City Council in the morning of 3 July 2014. The SNP were called upon to match the UK government's £500 million funding. It would have been impossible politically for the SNP not to match London's offer. Later that same day Nicola Sturgeon announced that the Scottish Government would also commit £500 million. I know the background because I was Leader of Glasgow City Council at the time.

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