A Conservative-led Government may only have the political capital to strike one other agreement on the scale of 'Devo Manc'.
After 5 years during which the urban policy agenda has ebbed and flowed, a hierarchy of UK cities – organised according to the range of powers and funding options cities now have – is reasonably clear.
In tier 1 we have London (although some say it hasn’t been able to extract many additional powers or money from this government) and Greater Manchester, which confirmed its position alongside London in the top tier as a result of the Devo Deal struck in November 2014 and the follow up Deal on health in February 2015. There is now clear blue water between these two cities and the rest, with one caveat – the Greater Manchester Deal still needs to be nailed down in legislation in the next government’s first Queen’s Speech.
Tier 2 cities are Leeds and Sheffield both of which were able to strike Devo Deals with the coalition through their respective combined authorities, albeit much weaker ones than that of Manchester. I’d also include Cambridge in this tier because of its recent deal on business rates growth retention (not much money but important symbolically) and its earlier earnback-style infrastructure city deal.
Tier 3 cities are Liverpool, Newcastle and Glasgow. Both Liverpool and Newcastle have a combined authority with their neighbouring authorities, but haven’t been able to extract any more powers from Government since their original City Deals. Glasgow agreed a significant City Deal just before the Scottish Independence Referendum, but at the moment lacks the robust governance structures to make decisions at the city-region level.
Tier 4 are Bristol and Birmingham and all other cities – big and small. Both Bristol and Birmingham, despite good progress, still lack the robust city region governance institutions and investment frameworks and as a result haven’t been able to strike any further devo deals, beyond their initial City Deal, with Government.
How might this hierarchy change over the next 5 years? Reading the runes of the manifestos and talking with Whitehall insiders, I think that if the next Government is led by the Conservatives there is an opportunity for one more city to join London and Greater Manchester in Tier 1. Why only one? Firstly, because the law of diminishing returns kicks in the more times the Government, or more accurately the Chancellor, does the sort of deal he did with Greater Manchester. It consumes considerable amounts of the political capital he has with his political colleagues. Secondly, because the Whitehall machinery, having been surprised once, won’t be so easily blind-sided the next time.
Interestingly, if we have a Labour-led government I’m not so sure even that opportunity will exist. They seem to be more concerned with rolling out combined authorities everywhere and ‘completing the map’ rather than allowing or encouraging more differentiation and difference between places. It is noteworthy that the legislation required to deliver the Greater Manchester Deal wasn’t included in Labour’s top 10 list of priorities for the Queen’s Speech. The worry is that this ‘something for everywhere’ approach will result in ‘vanilla’-style devolution.
Now if I’m right about the Conservative-led Government opportunity, this begs the question: which city and under what circumstances? For certain that city would need to introduce a metro mayor. This is the ‘price’ that a Conservative-led Government would expect a city to pay for the powers and money that Greater Manchester and London have. This non-negotiable condition will present serious challenges to the politicians in many if not all of the prospective cities. Putting this aside for a moment and assuming that city politicians, MPs and councillors would be able to pay this price, what other factors would come into play?
Reflecting on the Greater Manchester process I think there are four:
These four factors, separately and certainly when combined, present challenges for all of the cities in Tiers 2 and 3, as they did for a long time for Greater Manchester. And this is without reintroducing the metro mayor condition!
What is increasingly clear is that if those cities are not able or willing to address these factors then, under a Conservative-led Government, the differences between them and London and Greater Manchester – on economic and public service issues – will continue to grow.
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Why are Birmingham and Bristol so low down in this list.This is particular offensive to Birmingham and it’s huge conurbation. Cambridge is not a big city and should not be included at all in this list. It is a large school basically and is successful because it is near London. What other than education does Cambridge produce. Liverpool the greatest export port of the greatest empire the world has ever seen is treated like a Berkshire commuter town in this list. Manchester Liverpool Birmingham and Glasgow are the four greatest British cities outside the capital and all of them should be on equal footing .
This elegant article misses at least two points. First, with due respect to Manchester, London is in another universe compared with any other city in Europe, let alone England. Its governance system is incredibly devolved and now it’s Mayor is in the Cabinet! Even without those advantages, the per capita spend on infrastructure needed to sustain its appeal to foreign capital will continue to give it more leverage than the rest of the UK’s cities combined. A powerful, successful London is central to the new government’s self-image Of the UK as a world power and nothing will prevent it getting investment that is “off the scale” compared with anywhere else. This is not to suggest that there are not serious social issues in some parts of the capital but that is a red herring that shouldn’t disguise its extraordinary and privileged position.
London is in a league of its own and Manchester is at the head of the following pack, as distant from London as, say, Tranmere Rovers is from Chelsea FC.
The second point is that compared to the powers enjoyed by local government before it was diluted by the postwar Attlee government and then eviscerated by Mrs Thatcher, devo-Manc (welcome as it is) is no more than a grudging and partial repatriation of powers that our forefathers in the great cities took for granted. Do we suppose that Joseph Chamberlain in Birmingham, Herbert Morrison in London or even Bessie and Jack Braddock in Liverpool relied on central largesse to build their cities?
Instead of each city currying favour with the Chancellor to secure a bit more cash and autonomy than its neighbours, the city leaders and MPs outside London should work together to reinvent local democracy and promote alternatives to the command-and-control delivery of services from the centre. I am not suggesting that well-run cities like Manchester shouldn’t be rewarded but those benefits should be a function of competitively stronger economies generating greater resources than in less enlightened places and the freedom to tax and spend to meet local needs. Playing the league tables game just reinforces the assumed right of central government to set priorities unchallenged and uninformed by the reality of life in our cities.