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Yesterday’s Queen’s Speech offered the outlines of a clear programme for cities under a Boris Johnson government – more infrastructure and more mayors, reforms to self-employment and training and social care funding fixed once and for all.
After Brexit and crime, unleashing regional potential was a unifying thread of the speech. The clearest mechanism that the Government will do this is through empowering cities. The terms for any area wanting a deal remain as they have been since 2014:
There are now only a few big cities left without a metro mayor to be ‘levelled up’. Leaders in West Yorkshire, Nottingham and Nottinghamshire, and Southampton and Portsmouth may be wondering whether they will be invited or instructed to get a devolution deal.
Fixing the geography of metro mayoral areas in the North East and West of England is also important as they don’t currently cover the functional economic area of the city – making it difficult to align policy for people crossing political boundaries for work and other reasons. Powers are also patchy; levelling up would give Andy Street the statutory planning powers he currently lacks.
But a focus on levelling up to Greater Manchester and no further, with little said about London, risks stopping these cities getting the new powers and local revenue sources (such as devolved Stamp Duty, for example) that would help them solve local blockages to growth. These are similar powers that this Prime Minister called for when he commissioned the London Finance Commission in 2012.
The UK’s major cities have come a long way in just the last five years, but they still have significantly fewer powers and less funding than similar sized counterparts such as Lyon, Milan or Barcelona. There will be concerns among city halls from London to Manchester that no new powers, except air quality, are on the agenda when they should be.
In the past Government has favoured metro mayors with higher allocations of no-strings-attached funding, such as the £2.45 billion Transforming Cities Fund, so the ‘levelling up’ of infrastructure spend is likely to make metro mayors the main beneficiaries. Mayors are also likely to be in prime position for more local control over the railways – the Prime Minister was close to taking control of the more railways in London while he was Mayor.
The Prime Minister’s speech in Manchester in September was clear on the importance of good quality and affordable transport links for helping ‘left behind’ towns. The government clearly wants new investment to help residents of places like Wigan more easily access the range of jobs, training and amenities that Manchester city centre can offer. This is good news for the GM Prospectus for Rail that sets out how it would invest in a devolved rail network to do this among other objectives.
Self-employment and skills
The Government is proposing to implement the findings of the Taylor Review into self-employment to improve conditions for these workers and increase funding to adult education. This will be of particular importance to cities with weaker economies where self-employment is the only source of income.
Centre for Cities published its analysis of the geography of self-employment found that for these workers it is more difficult to access training and pay for it. Our recommendations for supporting them should be looked at by HM Treasury.
Social care and funding
For cities looking at their budgets over the next decade, the most significant announcement would be ‘substantive proposals to fix the crisis in social care’. A green paper on social care didn’t materialise under Theresa May while the demands rise and costs to councils consume a larger share of a shrinking pie. The proposal for another 2 per cent precept on council tax to fund council tax is included as another stop-gap measure.
As Cities Outlook revealed, more than half of cities now spend most of their budgets on social care – in 2009/10, only four cities were in that position. At the same time day-to-day budgets in northern cities are 20 per cent lower than they were a decade ago. Southern have been able to raise more money locally to so that the drop is only half as steep. Northern cities simply have less to invest in the services and measures, from libraries to parks to public realm, that residents notice every time they walk around. For levelling up, fixing social care funding should be a springboard to levelling up funding for local government.
As we suggested over the summer, this mayor-turned-prime minister has set out a Queen’s Speech in which cities could play a central role in the future delivery of services and coordination of economic strategy.
The question now is if this becomes reality…
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