Before today’s Core Cities’ summit could even get going, George Osborne had stolen the initiative, making his own ‘devolution declaration’ that there will be an Act of Parliament in the Queen’s Speech to enshrine the Greater Manchester devolution deal, and that in order to follow suit, other UK cities will need to accept a Metro Mayor.
In many senses Osborne’s announcement is simply a restating of his pre-election position and the pledges included in the Conservative Party Manifesto. But it is significant that he has chosen so early in the new Parliament to explicitly commit to delivering the Greater Manchester Deal, and that by promising a Cities Devolution Bill, he has raised the potential for more such deals to be done with other places.
Equally significant is that Osborne is offering the clarity and consistency that so many of us who have championed the urban devolution agenda have long called for. The Chancellor could not be clearer regarding his conditions for accepting a transfer of powers from central to local government – “with these new powers for cities must come new city-wide elected mayors who work with local councils. I will not impose this model on anyone. But nor will I settle for less.”
Unsurprisingly, local politicians for whom the idea of a pan-city region metro mayor is uncomfortable have already voiced resistance, with the leader of Newcastle City Council suggesting this morning that “the Chancellor’s obsession with just one model risks making 90 per cent of devolution opportunities impossible”. But in setting out the basis upon which future deals will be struck so early in the Parliament, the Chancellor has put the ball firmly in the court of local politicians across UK cities, who now face a stark choice as to whether to maintain their resistance to adopting a city-region mayor and risk missing out on the benefits of further devolution, or resolve to broker agreement locally for new strategic city-region leadership in exchange for new powers to boost growth.
Of course, what is currently on the negotiating table from central government does not represent all of the powers that cities need to truly fulfil their potential – most importantly, Osborne is still relatively silent on devolving substantial tax raising and retention powers. But we do know that when agreement can be reached on governance models and structures, there is more scope for further devolution in future years to take place. We have seen that already in the context of Greater Manchester with the addition of devolved health funding, and in the context of London where over the course of the last decade the scope of the Mayor of London and the GLA’s authority has grown significantly.
Sixteen years on from the Greater London Authority Act, the Chancellor has succeeded in brokering the first major city devolution agreement of the 21st Century, and has set out very clearly and consistently the terms on which he is willing to pursue further ambitious devolution deals with other UK cities. Now it’s up to city leaders to respond.