Nick Clegg may not be very popular right now but in at least one area of policy he is making important progress.
Regardless of my own political loyalties (and, of course, the RSA’s studious independence) I have tended to be more sympathetic to the Deputy Prime Minister than most other commentators. Partly this reflects my minor obsession with whether party leaders have the bottle to say and do stuff in the public interest and right for their party in the long-term even though it is unpopular among activists. Of all the three leaders Clegg gets the most points on this measure, sticking doggedly to his conviction that sacrificing popularity (and presumably Parliamentary seats) is a price worth paying for being the first third party leader in living memory to head a credible party of Government. I also think English voters are not used to coalitions and the compromises they inevitably involve.
On policy, there is no doubt Clegg has had some big setbacks as a consequence of being a junior partner in Government, none worse than the self inflicted pain of reneging on his Party’s ill-advised election pledge on tuition fees, something made even worse by the continued unraveling of the policy itself. But there have been successes too and one of these involves devolution to cities.
Yesterday the DPM announced that the City Deal programme will be expanded from an initial eight cities and city regions to twenty more. The deal involves the Government devolving economic powers and freedoms to cities in exchange for commitments to deliver key outcomes and to strengthen aspects of local governance. Now, Cambridge, Hull, Sunderland and seventeen other cities and large towns will join the likes of Manchester, Sheffield and Liverpool in being able to negotiate long term agreements with central Government.The existing deals cover new local powers like retaining additional business rates resulting from economic development or bringing in new Government revenue in the form of payment by results.
An impressive aspect of the initial deals was how quickly they were negotiated, so a challenge now – given the denuded capacity of Whitehall - will be to put twenty new unique and complex deals in place. Indeed, the Cabinet Office has warned there is no guarantee that every city on the new list will win a deal. But, although council officers and civil servants will be working long hours, if Nick Clegg shows the same determination to drive progress and knock heads together that he has so far, by the end of next year the overwhelming majority of the English population will live in places where locally elected leaders have substantially enhanced economic freedoms.
The City Deals are gradually bringing England more into line with the rest of the world: not a moment too soon given the growing evidence that cities are the key drivers of economic growth and also that they are in many ways more flexible and effective international operators than nation states.
Another person who deserves some credit for this shift is David Miliband. As local government minister, it was he (backed by John Prescott) who tried to tackle decades of growing centralization and who saw cities and city regions as the key strategic level to which to devolve. Much to his chagrin at the time, Miliband was reshuffled before he could drive his policy through, and a combination of weaker successors and the ambivalence about the whole project in the Treasury and 10 Downing Street meant that Labour’s subsequent moves to devolve – for example through Comprehensive Area Agreements – were too limited and too bureaucratic.
With the Coalition’s NHS reorganisation making an expensive and messy meal of what is basically incremental change, and with changes in school governance lacking coherence or stability it may be that Nick Clegg’s determination to push ahead with devolution to cities will be seen as the most significant, robust and timely aspect of the Coalition’s reforms to public administration. It is also politically generous given that in most cases central Government is devolving power – albeit with big strings attached - to councils run by Labour.
As the Centre for Cities argues, the process of giving our cites more economic freedom needs to go further but it feels like it also has a powerful logic which future Governments will find it hard to defy. In the years to come cities will be where much of the economic action – and most of the innovation – comes from. It is certainly where I hope the RSA can focus much of its work.
His leadership may be in question and his poll ratings miserable, but Nick Clegg has what should be the ultimate satisfaction in politics – knowing he has made a difference that will last.