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Cities are going to be at the heart of the electoral battleground. If further confirmation was needed after the Chancellor’s Northern Powerhouses speech, the Adonis Growth Review and the launch of Northern Futures over the last couple of months, today’s speech in Manchester was it. And now it’s Labour’s turn to respond if northern cities are to have the certainty that change really will happen post May 2015.
In response to the launch of the One North report arguing for stronger road, rail and air connections for the North of England, the Chancellor confirmed he will commit “new money, new infrastructure, new transport and new science” to the region, with the Autumn Statement due to set out a plan to build and pay for more transport to connect its cities. Announcements on science in the North are due in September, David Higgins’ recommendations on HS2 are due in October, and then November will see George Osborne set out plans for greater devolution to ‘metro mayors’.
In the year before the Election, with the Autumn Statement likely to be the last big policy hurrah before the General Election, this is a strong signal of not only the personal commitment of the Chancellor to this agenda, but also the determination of the Conservatives and the Lib Dems alike to make devolution and strengthening the North a centrepiece from which to fight for seats in May 2015. Labour, which has been making plenty of announcements of its own in recent months, will have no choice but to respond.
But now parties need to put further flesh on the bones, which they all recognise. As Government announcements are made over the next few months, the true test of whether Northern, and other, cities will see a lasting legacy from this commitment is whether the Government commits to changes now that cannot be reversed, creating certainty in the shorter term around investment. And then also whether all parties commit to a lasting programme of substantial investment in and devolution to cities, creating certainty for policymakers and investors alike over the longer term. That means guaranteed money behind the Autumn Statement commitments for greater Northern infrastructure (and enough money: it’s striking that last week London was calling for £1.3 trillion, not just £15 billion), plus longer term, cross-party commitments to this investment and to greater financial powers for cities, which will help to attract the additional private sector investment that can get projects moving. This requires Labour to set out more detail about their policies, including how they would respond to the One North plan (more thoughts on the plan itself will be up on the blog soon).
Long term changes to governance will also be vital and I really welcome the Chancellor’s emphasis on metro mayors (we’ve argued for these since we were set up). But they will need real powers and freedoms to be attractive. That means at least having London-style powers plus additional tax-raising authority and greater control over the money that cities already have. The initial response to the recent Select Committee report arguing for greater fiscal devolution was immediate and fairly dismissive. That has to change if these reforms are to make a real difference, and that’s true for all the parties. Labour have talked about this, but they need to set out policy detail, and soon, otherwise Labour leaders in the North will be placed in the difficult position of being offered more by a Conservative-Lib Dem government than by their own party.
For a think tank that has been working on these issues for nearly ten years (our tenth anniversary is next year) this shift of the national agenda to focus on cities is enormously welcome. However, it’s always easy to talk devolution in the run-up to the election, and particularly so in opposition. So over the next few months we’ll be watching closely for the Government to prove what its commitment means in practice, as well as to see whether Labour will be matching or bettering these offers. Whatever the result in May 2015, cities (and not only in the North) need to be at the heart of the agenda for the UK to sustain its economic growth and prosperity into the future.
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