The power of inertia within government is often held to blame for a raft of failures: chronically poor IT systems, unnecessarily bureaucratic management practices, and inefficient, ineffective policy initiatives, to name just three. Returning from the last of the party conferences in Glasgow, it seems that a little inertia could go a long way. If the commitment to city-devolution is as real as each of the parties makes out, we should anticipate metros being at the heart of any next government’s economic strategy.
The consensus for city-devolution, and a number of the City Growth Commission's pro-growth measures (e.g. improved connectivity between our major metros in the north), is both encouraging and rather surprising – given where were at the start of the Commission’s inquiry, just twelve months ago.
The degree of consensus is particularly striking in two ways. First, the backdrop to the conference season has been the Scottish referendum and subsequent commitment to devo max. While the parties disagree about the speed of decision making, with Labour and the Lib Dems calling for a slower, ‘more considered’ timetable, one thing is clear: as my taxi driver in Glasgow said to me, “things can’t continue as they are”. We need a radical shift away from our overtly centralized political economy – it isn’t working for anyone, north or south of the border.
Second, the parties arrive at the same conclusion in favour of city-devolution, but each come with their own rationale. For the Conservatives, the prospect of growth of our major cities, especially those in the North, brings a positive story to the dreary narrative of fragile recovery and austerity, which has overshadowed much of their time in office. It enables George Osborne to develop a rebalanced economy pitch for the coming election.
For Lib Dems the principles of localism and subsidiarity are central to their concept of freedom and right to self-governance. Moving to the scale of city-regions, encompassing city centres and their wider travel to work areas, enables ‘metros’ (as the Commission calls them) to work effectively at their functional economic geography and allow for redistribution within (as well as between) places.
For Labour, the agenda builds on the establishment of the Greater London Authority model in 2001 and fills in the void in policy left by the rejection of regional assemblies. Broadly, commentators seem to agree that the mayoral model – with responsibilities for economic development, housing, transport and policing – has provided effective, accountable governance for the capital. Lord Adonis proposed a similar approach for Combined Authorities, including some limited fiscal devolution, in his June 2014 report and Jon Cruddas has included it in his Labour Party Policy Review as a framework for devolved power and public service reform.
Spurred again by the Autumn Statement, in which the Chancellor has promised to make science spending and devolution to northern cities a key component, cross-party consensus should keep ‘Devo Met’ motoring in the run up to the General Election. This matters because in the final months of the Parliament, officials in Whitehall – who might otherwise be tempted to wind down – are more likely to continue to deliver an agenda that will persist regardless of the result in May 2015. Remarkably, the power of inertia might prove Westminster and Whitehall’s greatest asset.
Charlotte Alldritt is the Secretary of the City Growth Commission. You can follow her @CAlldritt and the Commission @CityGrowthCom
This blog was originally posted on the website of the City Growth Commission.