Devolution to city-regions can and should be done quickly.
So now we know. Scotland has voted ‘no’ to independence and, in doing so, ‘yes’ to considerably more powers. The stage is set for the next Act; the transformation of the United Kingdom as we knew it. And what’s enormously encouraging is that, in the headlong rush towards new constitutional ‘deals’ – not just for Scotland but also for England, Wales and Northern Ireland – the first official response from the Prime Minister included an acknowledgement of the importance of English city-regions, and a commitment to announce greater powers for them over the next few days.
This is faster and better than I had hoped for, even earlier this week. We always knew that constitutional reform was an inevitable and important consequence of yesterday’s referendum. With the three main party leaders having committed to a draft Bill for Scotland by Burns’ Night (late January), the race will now be on for officials to work out precisely how ‘extensive new powers’ for the Scottish Parliament, ‘equitable’ sharing of resources and provision of the Barnett formula will work in practice. But calls for geographically driven reforms elsewhere have been growing too, from Wales’ demands that they receive the same treatment, to increasingly vocal debates about an ‘English Parliament’ that prevents Scottish MPs from having influence over English issues when English MPs have limited influence over Scotland.
These debates will continue to run; there is no easy constitutional answer in a nation where one country – England – is quite dominant when it comes to population and wealth. But what’s really encouraging is that early announcements are also actively advocating that devolution has to mean more progress on devolution to cities – not just to countries – an issue that is critical to both the UK’s economic recovery and its deficit reduction. As the detail is worked out, not only over the next few days but the next several months, it is vital that politicians from all parties keep the momentum going. This will matter for Scotland too: ask Glasgow why they’ve struck a City Deal with the Treasury and they would say it’s because the tendency in Scotland has been to centralise to Holyrood rather than decentralise to cities.
As we move forward, so too will the need to focus on cities and city-regions, rather than regions, remain important. Regions are deceptively attractive; they offer a simple solution of devolving powers to areas that people have worked with before. Yet they do not really exist. They are not economic entities. They are not administrative entities; the first act of the Coalition Government was to break up the Regional Development Agencies. And nor are regions entities with identities that resonate – ask anyone in Cornwall how much they have in common with someone in Swindon, yet both are in the ‘South West region’. City-regions, by contrast, are economic entities, are increasingly administrative entities, and are places that people will proudly say they are from (from Mancunians to Bristolians).
For this momentum to be sustained will require strong leadership to overcome all the hurdles that are always associated with greater devolution, from democratic and financial challenges to accountability and institutions. A great deal of work will be required in the months ahead. It will also be important to resist the temptation to achieve a perfect constitutional settlement on all matters before enacting any reforms: without rapid progress on devolution to city regions, economic recovery and deficit reduction could be set back years. Devolution to city-regions, or county-regions, within England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland matters immensely to the jobs, homes and public services that politicians are promising. And it can be done quickly. Our 2015 Election Manifesto, to be launched on Sunday to coincide with the first day of party conference season, will set out a pathway – so look out for more from us then.
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