In the Levelling Up White Paper, the Government has produced a devolution framework through which combined authorities can bid for further powers, and has stated its intentions to progress “trailblazer” devolution deals with Greater Manchester and West Midlands. This is part of the Government’s mission to ensure every part of England that wants one will have a devolution deal with powers at, or approaching, those of the Greater London Authority (GLA) by 2030.
In terms of deepening devolution through the trailblazer deals, it’s helpful to first know where we are currently to better understand where we need to go.
The GLA shows the potential for devolution in the trailblazer deals
Using spending on day-to-day services as a proxy for the size of a mayor’s remit, the Mayor of London has much greater spending power than his counterparts elsewhere in the country. Figure 1 shows that in 2019, the GLA had a per capita service spend of £687, more than 1.6 times that of Greater Manchester (£424) and nearly 10 times greater than that of the West Midlands (£70).
Setting London aside shows that there is also substantial variation between combined authorities. Greater Manchester spent 12 times more than the two lowest spending combined authorities, South Yorkshire and West of England (£35 each).
Figure 1: The service spending and remits of metro mayors differs significantly across combined authorities
Source: Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Local authority revenue expenditure and financing England; Centre for Cities calculations
The differences in spend between the combined authorities, and between the combined authorities and the GLA, is driven by their different roles across and within service categories. Control over police spending is the main reason why London and Greater Manchester have much larger spending per head (West Yorkshire also now has control of police budgets). Also, Liverpool’s control of the rail system locally through Merseyrail means it spent £181 per capita on transport in 2019, while the other combined authorities, which don’t have these powers, spent between £16 and £64.
Even among the lower-spending combined authorities (between £73 and £35 per capita) the composition of spend varies. Four of these seven combined authorities provided some education services, while three did not. Uniquely, Tees Valley spent more on education and planning and development services (due to its control over local business supports) than on transport, a service for which city region coordination is very advantageous.
Devolution should move at the pace of the fastest, despite short term variation
The trailblazer deals will further widen the variation in Figure 1 – Greater Manchester, for example, will leave the West of England even further behind. However, we should embrace this variation in the short term. If greater devolution is to happen then it will need to continue to move at the pace of the fastest – this has allowed Greater Manchester to be a trendsetter, rather than being held back by a lack of action in other places.
In the long-term we should be looking to even out devolution. The goal should be to get everyone to the same final destination of greater devolution, where there is appetite, in their own time. Short-term variation indicates welcome progress towards that destination. Given this, the invitations to Greater Manchester and the West Midlands should be applauded, and other mayoral combined authorities should be asking for the same opportunity.
That final destination though should not be merely levelling up to London’s position, as the Levelling Up White Paper suggests – we should look to go further. By international standards, London is fairly constrained in what it has control over. As part of our work for the 2030 Commission we’ll soon be setting out how constrained local government in England is relative to OECD counterparts, and we’ll set out what the final destination for devolution should be in a follow up blog in the coming weeks.