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The most recent and most significant devolution announcement came courtesy of the Chancellor earlier this month, with new powers and a metro mayor for Greater Manchester and negotiations for Sheffield and Leeds to follow. But what about the UK’s other major cities, or the host of other economically important small and medium sized cities? They too need the current system to change if they are to realise their economic potential.
The Manchester announcement is the latest milestone in the race to the top on city devolution between all of the main political parties. The pace of change has been quickened by the Scottish independence referendum, but more fundamentally by a growing recognition across political divides of the need to empower places to boost growth outside London, or ‘rebalance the economy’.
It is welcome that devolving power and control to cities has remained high on the political and news agenda, but there is a risk that the momentum built to date will dissipate if the debate does not move beyond vague agreements that more powers and flexibilities should be devolved away from Whitehall.
Our latest paper, Economic growth through devolution: Towards a plan for cities and counties across England, aims to fill the gaps in the devolution debate.
Combined authorities for city-regions are the preferred model of governance to effectively support economic growth within UK cities, while ensuring sufficient local and national accountability. Our paper sets out the detail that is currently lacking on how future combined authorities should be rolled out, including the leadership and accountability measures required, the kinds of transition arrangements likely to be necessary, and crucially, exactly which powers should be devolved and where.
For smaller and medium sized cities, the gaps in the debate are more significant. There is no preferred approach for putting powers at the right scale for them to drive growth. And currently these cities – many of which are critical to the success of the national economy, such as Cambridge, Oxford, Brighton or Reading – face many barriers to effectively drive growth and work across existing boundaries with neighbours in county or shire districts. We offer the solution of city-county authorities, bringing cities and counties on the same level, working together collaboratively on economic, transport and regeneration strategy and investment for the functional economic area.
Our paper sets out a clear and explicit, but not definitive, plan for cities and city regions to develop effective strategic partnerships, effective at the scale of the economy, and accountable to both local and national stakeholders. We propose a pragmatic solution for overcoming the challenges that many cities face in their attempt to drive economic growth with neighbouring counties, and contribute to the national economy.
Overarching the plan is the recommendation for a Cities and Prosperity Act, which would simplify the process for transferring powers to local government and city regions, by laying down the enabling legislation for combined authorities and city-county authorities to be formed, and powers devolved, without requiring new legislation for every new settlement.
While our paper does not provide the final solution or a perfect template, it does move the debate forward and suggest a workable plan. To our knowledge this has not been done before. We welcome further discussion and debate on our plan, and the proposal for city-county authorities as a means of empowering cities and ensuring effective, strategic joint-working to support economic growth across city and county boundaries.
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