Many a devolution skeptic had wondered whether the Conservative party’s enthusiasm for the Northern Powerhouse – led by the Chancellor, George Osborne – was pre-election pandering to the Labour heartlands. And so it might have been. But David Cameron made sure to renew his commitment to city devolution in his speech last Friday as he accepted the Queen’s invitation to form a government for a second term – this time with a majority.
Several devolution skeptics also wondered whether the PM’s promise to rebalance the political and economic geography of the country was merely timely rhetoric – a faint response to the SNP’s domination north of the border.
But in less than a week we have seen the Chancellor announce a Cities Devolution Bill will be drafted for the first session of the new Parliament; Greg Clark – a thoughtful champion of localism with credibility amongst local government leaders of all parties – appointed Secretary of State for the Department of Communities and Local Government; and, Jim O’Neill, chair of the RSA City Growth Commission, appointed as Commercial Secretary to the Treasury with particular responsibility for cities and infrastructure investment. The skeptics can, like Paddy Ashdown, start eating their hats.
But there’s more to be done. This morning I spoke at the Core Cities Devolution Declaration event and warned against ‘superficial devolution’ – the type that looks like Father Christmas has handed out gifts from under the tree, but where the conditions, caveats and small print are such that the benefits can’t be realised. The issue of elected mayors, for example, might prove a sticking point for many places. And will the Chancellor enable real fiscal devolution? Abolishing the cap on council tax in England and allowing Greater London to retain a greater share of the income it generates will be key tests of the new Government.
The Coalition made significant, and sometimes unexpected, levels of progress - particularly with the devolution of health and social care budgets to Greater Manchester. The agenda continues to march on at a pace. Let’s hope with it comes real devolution – a chance to rebalance our economy, reform our public services and renew our democracy.
This is not just about the Northern Powerhouse (though it now has its own minister in James Wharton). In all of our great city-regions and beyond, we have an opportunity to let people and places shape their own futures.
In the fast-paced game of city-devolution, one-upmanship drives many of the players: can this government fulfill the promises of its predecessors by delivering localism and rebalancing the economy? Can this city-region secure the most ambitious deal? Can those local authorities put aside entrenched politics to show central government it means business? It seems that competition can, after all, be a powerful lever of local dynamism; Lord Heseltine’s City Challenge Fund and the ethos of bidding for funds has perhaps been based on the right idea, but only once the stakes seem high enough to generate real results.
The RSA City Growth Commission’s final recommendations, published one year ago, represented a critical step in a longer journey towards devolution in England. As with many Commissions, the process of enquiry is as important as the final report. The visit the Commission took to Newcastle, to listen and learn about the challenges we face, and to contribute to the local debate, was an important staging post in our own drive to devolution.
Charlotte Alldritt considers the impact of the City Growth Commission one year on, and the challenges ahead.