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Today marked the state opening of Parliament, and the first Queen’s Speech to be written by a Conservative Government in nearly twenty years. And although there was little by way of surprises, with each of the key components of the Government’s legislative agenda trailed by the Prime Minister and Chancellor during the post-election period, the contents of the speech did emphasise the extent of the Conservatives reforming ambitions, with major constitutional, fiscal and economic changes planned.
The most high profile announcement for UK cities was the inclusion of a City Devolution Bill, which enshrines the Greater Manchester Devolution Deal, but crucially, also opens the door for other cities with a combined authority and city-region mayor to put forward their case to receive the same deal. Although many will rightly point out that much of what has featured in the Manchester Deal has been relatively small scale by international comparisons, this Bill does represent the opportunity to make real progress on equipping UK cities with the strategic powers they need to fulfil their economic potential in the years ahead. Getting the detail of this legislation right over the coming weeks, and ensuring the Bills safe passage through Parliament, will be critical not just to the future of Greater Manchester, but to cities all across the country.
As part of the city devolution agenda, a separate Buses Bill will provide the option for combined authority areas with directly elected mayors to be responsible for the running of their local bus services. We have been calling for Transport for London-style powers over transport for other cities for some time, and these plans over bus franchising are very welcome.
Continuing the devolution theme, the Conservatives also made good on their pledge to include a Scotland Bill in the Queen’s Speech. It is expected that this will secure first the implementation of the Smith Commission recommendations, before also providing the opportunity to review the case for further powers to be devolved. Although distinct from the Government’s plans for city devolution, any further changes to Scottish autonomy, particularly with regards fiscal independence, could have significant implications for the direction of travel on devolution to cities.
Housing also featured prominently, with legislation planned to support first time buyers, extend the right to buy and crucially, also boost housing supply through the construction of 200,000 starter homes. However, given the balance of interventions remains skewed towards the demand side despite the scale of the housing supply crisis facing many of our fastest growing cities, it remains to be seen whether the measures included in the Housing Bill will deliver the scale of new homes needed, where they are needed most.
As expected the Government introduced an EU Referendum Bill, setting out the franchise that will take part in the poll to determine Britain’s continued membership of the European Union. The details of the referendum, and it’s outcome, matter for UK cities and in turn for the national economy. The UK’s membership of the EU makes it an attractive place to invest for foreign firms hoping to gain access to the EU Single Market, with many such companies helping to power city economies across the country. The uncertainty caused by a drawn out referendum campaign, and the implications of a ‘no’ vote, could be significant for city growth in the years ahead.
A new Full Employment and Welfare Benefits Bill was also announced, including a commitment to create three million more apprenticeships. The Government will have a statutory duty to report annually on progress against meeting the target. In addition, an Enterprise Bill will reduce regulations that burden SMEs and a Trade Unions Bill will reform strike laws.
It goes without saying that the devil of the Queen’s Speech lies in the detail of the Bills themselves. But this time around – even more so than under the previous Coalition Government – it also lies in the politics of the House of Commons itself. With a working majority of just 12 MPs, and an ambitious reform agenda featuring issues likely to prove contentious amongst their own MPs let alone with opposition parties, the Government will have its work cut out to deliver on all of its legislative priorities in the years ahead.
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