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Cities policy is finally passing the ‘small talk’ test. My 30 second spiel about what I do for a living to those uninvolved with the world of policy has reduced to a simple question: “You’ve heard of the Northern Powerhouse? That’s the kind of work we do.” And, over the last few weeks, without fail, people have nodded.
But why the shift from niche concern to generally understood issue? And have we broken the cycle of politicians promising to give away power before an election, and then proceeding to consolidate power centrally afterwards?
Ultimately, I think the shift has come about, and will endure, because the Prime Minister and the Chancellor decided that this matters – particularly the Chancellor, who has been the driving force behind this agenda since his speech setting out his vision for a Northern Powerhouse last July.
For the Conservatives, still regarded as more a party of the south, explicit support for a Northern Powerhouse has become political shorthand for their vision of a more balanced economy, political fairness, making the most of regional pride, transforming national infrastructure (through HS2 and HS3) and countering London’s dominance. It’s a concept that not only resonated with voters at the election, as Lord Mandelson regretfully noted, but also one that, if they start to deliver on it during this Parliament through policies such as the Cities and Local Government Bill, helps the Conservatives position themselves as the ‘one nation’ party they wish to be.
External circumstances – and the SNP – will help keep this on the agenda: devolution to cities also provides the Government with a partial answer to the questions that will inevitably be raised by Scotland. The referendum left many thorny issues unresolved. Now the SNP is the third largest party in the Commons, pressure to devolve more powers to Scotland will only continue to grow. That will exert parallel and ongoing pressures on all parties to devise a settlement that works for England and Wales too.
Austerity also makes devolution more attractive for a Chancellor who has personally associated himself not only with the success or failure of the Northern Powerhouse, but also with balancing the books. Devolving policies such as health and social care to local areas offers the hope – untested as yet – that by streamlining public services, areas will save money and be able to improve outcomes. It also creates an opportunity for the government to appear generous and progressive at a time when budgets will be cut deeply.
But beyond the Conservatives and SNP, what of Labour and the Lib Dems – how important will devolution be to them in the next five years?
The Lib Dems have always been a party committed to devolution; Nick Clegg was a leading advocate in government, while their manifesto continued that theme, arguing for a presumption in favour of devolution. Regardless of the results of their leadership election, I would expect that commitment to continue, with peers such as Lord Shipley continuing to intervene in this agenda through his comments on and scrutiny of the Cities and Local Government Bill in the Lords at the moment.
Labour has a more uncertain future on this agenda. It was striking in the run-up to the election that, despite considerable work undertaken in this area by Labour luminaries including Sir Richard Leese, Jon Cruddas and Lord Adonis, Labour commitments on devolution remained vague and understated. It’s an approach since criticised by Lord Mandelson and Tristram Hunt as a strategic mistake, while Jon Cruddas talked to the IPPR last week about the potential for an English Labour party that can make the most of what’s happening within the country. But it’s by no means certain that the future Labour leader will see devolution as a priority policy.
Even if Labour does decide devolution is a topic that matters and helps them tap into the anti-Westminster feelings across the country, they face a strategic choice. Either they can criticise the Government’s approach as too partial and favouring individual cities too much at the expense of everywhere else, or they can try to out-do the Government in setting out an ambitious vision of the scope and scale of the devolution Labour would offer if in office, capitalising on the fact they run the majority of the major cities that will benefit most from the Conservative government offer. Until September’s leadership election result, it’s hard to know which way this is likely to go.
What next for cities and devolution more generally? The reaction to the “pausing” of plans to improve rail services in the North shows how high expectations about the Northern Powerhouse are and the Government should be urgently trying to “unpause” the projects. I’m also expecting the emergency Budget on 8th July and the Spending Review to make announcements on this agenda, with longer term goals likely to be more metro mayors and smaller scale city deals across the country.
The success of passing power down to Manchester will be a yardstick against which the Government, and the Chancellor, will be measured. There’s a great deal to do to turn rhetoric into reality but, if he’s even partially successful, devolution could move permanently from niche issue to mainstream policy for all political parties to fight about. Which should give plenty more for people, policy wonks or not, to keep talking about.
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