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In the run-up to the spending review the government is under increasing pressure – for political as much as for economic reasons – to do at least one more big city devolution deal, to sit alongside the deal already struck with Greater Manchester. This pressure should mean cities are in a very strong negotiating position with the government, but unless geographies are finalised, only a few cities will be able to take advantage of this.
Most of the press coverage around the devolution deals has so far focused on the larger than expected number of submissions – 38 in all with 6 coming from Yorkshire alone. Less coverage was given to the fact that many of those that did submit have yet to settle on a final geography for their deal. This matters. The government will only, and indeed can only, strike a deal with places that have a settled geography and a legally appropriate institution covering that geography – a combined authority – to receive the powers and resources being devolved.
The pressure to do a deal fast means that the government will find it easier to do a deal with big cities that have settled geographies and existing combined authorities – Liverpool and Newcastle. Cities that have a strong set of asks, but are still struggling with their geography – Leeds, Sheffield and Birmingham – risk missing out or getting a second rate deal. Obviously any big city, settled geography or not, will still need to accept the government’s ‘metro-mayor’ requirement in order get a substantive deal.
Although some cities have made considerable progress in recent months, the fact that many of the big cities still don’t have a settled and robust geography needs to be addressed with some urgency.
There are several reasons offered by cities as to why resolving the geography issue has been difficult. These include tight government deadlines, long-standing political tensions and changing leadership. All of these are real and should not be under-estimated, although it’s worth pointing out that the agenda within government and more generally has been moving this way for more than 15 years, ever since the Labour government, as part of its devolution agenda, introduced the London Mayor alongside the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies in 2000.
But while most of those issues cannot be solved in the few weeks ahead, there is one barrier to agreeing geography that can be tackled. One of the biggest reasons why cities have found the governance issue difficult to resolve is to do with their focus on getting the perfect fit between their economic and political geography. Whilst in some senses this is laudable, in practice this has often resulted in the perfect becoming the enemy of the good. Take Greater Manchester for example. Does the political geography of the 10 local authorities perfectly fit its economic geography? No. If it did Macclesfield would be part of Greater Manchester and Wigan would not. But a decision was taken in 1986 on the best fit geography for the city-region and this has remained the same ever since.
The same goes for London. Everybody recognises the GLA boundary doesn’t capture the full economic footprint of London. If it did large swathes of the South East would be under the control of the Mayor. But there is also a recognition within the GLA that the match between its political and economic geography is good enough for policies to be formulated and progress to be made. And in both cases the city-region governance, the LEP, the transport authority, and the many other institutions that operate in the city-region all have the same geography.
Compare this to the other big cities and in most cases their city-region, LEP and combined authority geographies are all different. And their proposed devolution deal geographies are different again. (The picture is even more confused outside of the big cities). Holding out for the perfect geography is equivalent to waiting for Godot.
In the short-term those big cities that provide the government with a settled geography, governed by a combined authority and led by a metro-mayor stand a good chance of getting most, if not all, of what they want. This will be great for the people, communities and businesses of those places. Those places that cannot present these elements to the government are likely to miss out.
The local authorities in and around these cities need to move away from the mindset of regarding working together at the city-region scale as primarily being about getting a deal, and instead recognise the inherent value of working across local authority boundaries to promote economic growth on a consistent, long-term basis, regardless of the national policy agenda of the moment. Only then will they be able to be ahead of government policy instead of responding to it.
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