Next May some of the biggest city-regions outside of London will be getting metro mayors, including Greater Manchester, West Midlands, Liverpool, and West of England (Bristol) – all of which were obvious contenders for a devolution deal when the previous Government launched this agenda two years ago.
Less predictable, however, was that Tees Valley would also be among that list, while larger places such as Leeds, Newcastle and Nottingham would be conspicuous by their absence. This begs the question – how did the Middlesbrough city-region get a deal (including powers over skills, transport and planning) while other places have missed out?
The answer is that while Tees Valley has been somewhat under the radar compared to bigger cities, it has forged ahead by doing many of the same things Greater Manchester did to secure the first major devolution deal in 2014:
- Having a clear and consistent plan – Unlike in some other places, local leaders in Tees Valley have offered a practical, evidenced ‘ask’ from Government from the outset, as well as a convincing strategy for how they could deliver services and growth more effectively at city-region level.
- Consensus among local leaders. Stakeholders from across Tees Valley’s businesses, councils, colleges and residents have worked together effectively to secure an agreement in the first place, and crucially to stick with it. By speaking to Government with one voice and demonstrating their ability to work together, they have been able to secure the best deal possible for the area.
- The right geography. Any proposed devolution deal must match the geography over which strategic decision-making can have the greatest impact on jobs, transport and housing, and over which people live their lives. Tees Valley benefits from a relatively straightforward economic geography, meaning that those decisions can be made more easily and effectively. This has also enabled local leaders to avoid the kinds of political challenges that have hampered efforts to find common ground in the North East and Yorkshire.
- Agreeing to introduce a metro-mayor. The former Chancellor George Osborne made it clear that a metro-mayor would be a stipulation of any devolution deal, a requirement maintained by the new Government. Leaders of Tees Valley’s local authorities were happy to meet this request – something which has proved a sticking point for places such as the North East. Not only will this allow the electorate to hold an elected figure to account for the decisions made by local leaders, it also shows that the constituent local authorities are willing to cede some power ‘upwards’ in order to benefit from the strategic powers that will be devolved ‘downwards’ from central Government.
Tees Valley’s progress belies a common theme we often hear from places who have been unable to secure an agreement – that the Government’s requirements are too difficult to meet, and that Greater Manchester is an exception in having done so. The success of Tees Valley shows there is little foundation to these explanations – and that the onus is on other places to do what they can to secure a deal, before they fall further behind.
Indeed, the reward Tees Valley will enjoy in return for meeting the Government’s conditions will go beyond the initial funding and powers that the city-region will receive next May. The first devolution deal should be seen as just a starting point to implement the mayoral institutions and legal framework – all of which will enable the city-region to capitalise on future waves of devolution. For example, by the time the first metro-mayor takes office in Greater Manchester, it will be on its fourth iteration of the deal.
Similarly, Tees Valley is now well-positioned to take on more powers as the devolution agenda develops further – meaning the dark horse of devolution could forge further ahead of other bigger places in the years to come.