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.