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Today marks the State Opening of Parliament and the traditional unveiling of the Government’s legislative programme. But a look through the bills included indicates that, for cities, the key battles for progress on devolution and local growth funding will now be waged within Whitehall and town halls, rather than on the floor of the House of Commons.
In the most relevant announcement for some of the UK’s Core Cities, the speech did include a bill to provide initial funding to support the design of phase two of High Speed Two, linking Birmingham and Leeds, and Birmingham and Manchester. High Speed Two could have major impacts for those cities it services, but with delivery timelines stretching far in to the future, and still no overall commitment to fund and deliver the project, far more work is required before it becomes a reality.
Pension reform, immigration, and health and social care feature amongst bills that could have significant implications for many living and working in cities across the UK, as well as local authorities serving those communities. But in terms of new legislation which focuses squarely on local economic growth, or empowering our cities to boost their local economies, there was virtually nothing.
In many respects, this is a relief. The Coalition frontloaded the passing of legislation to support its Localism Agenda, introducing the Localism Act (2011), a new National Planning Policy Framework (introduced fully in 2013), the Local Government Finance Act (2012), and the Growth and Infrastructure Act (2013) to free and encourage local areas to drive growth. Add in the creation of LEPs, the City Deals process and most recently the endorsement of Lord Heseltine’s recommendations on local growth, and cities across the UK have spent the past three years adapting to a consistent wave of change.
Further progress on local economic growth now depends upon battles being waged in Whitehall and in town halls across the country. In endorsing Lord Heseltine’s recommendations, the Chancellor committed to decentralise a proportion of funding through a Single Local Growth Fund to give local areas more control over how money in their area is spent. Key arguments are taking place now in Whitehall as to the size of this pot, and the levels of discretion cities will have over it, with more detail expected in the Spending Review this summer.
And across town halls, cities are working out how, against a backdrop of significant budget cuts, to make the most of their new powers regarding the management of assets, revenue streams and planning, to boost their local economies. But these changes challenge local authorities to take on new roles, adopt new behaviours, and broker new partnerships. Often they require difficult decisions to be taken and specific funding priorities to be identified, which can spark resistance within councils themselves, or the wider local population.
Much depends on how these battles play out. With sufficient scale the Single Local Growth Fund could be transformative for how cities manage investment in their economies. But a Fund that is too small, or does not provide sufficient control, will have very little impact. And if cities cannot seize the initiative and use the new powers that they have been provided to drive growth in their areas, it will ultimately be much harder to make the case for more radical devolution in the years ahead.
Director of Communications and Development
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