Devolution comes to the cities?

Posted on March 27, 2015

It has been interesting times for localists since the Scottish Referendum. The result and the fallout has had a bigger impact on the governance of Britain debate than some in Westminster and Whitehall seemed to imagine. This is mainly because of the ‘solemn vow’ made by the three party in the days just before the referendum as a way of shoring up the Union. It worked, sort of, but the repercussions are now beginning to play out across England (and to some extent Wales) in the bright spotlight of the run up to the General Election. It is a truism that Whitehall, especially the Treasury, are centralists and there is quite a measure of cynicism about what the proposals for England really mean, but it is worth reminding ourselves of some of the developments of the past six months. The ‘Northern Powerhouse’ and ‘HS3’, an elected mayor for Greater Manchester, the Core Cities agenda, and running to keep up with the pack , City Deals.

It is also worth reminding ourselves just how out of kilter city governance in the UK is in comparison with other advanced western countries and just how far we need to go. The international evidence shows that cities perform better in these countries that are less centralised and where cities have greater powers resources and responsibilities. Thus in the UK taxes determined by local and regional/state governments amount to 3% in the UK (council tax and a proportion of business rates) whereas in Canada, Germany, Sweden and Spain the proportion is over 10%. Put another way London receives 74% of its income through transfers from central government, compared to 37% in Madrid, 31% in New York, 26% in Berlin and only 8% in Tokyo.
In Scotland the Smith Commission and Whitehall’s response to proposals for further devolution, Devo Max or Home Rule seem designed to keep stoking the fires. The response in England has been a mixture of ‘what about us?’ (‘English votes for English laws’) seizing the opportunity (Greater Manchester mainly) and a kind of stirring apparently designed to further encourage the independence flames (William Hague’s eccentric and unworkable proposals for two-tier MP’s at Westminster). All this has the potential for a really significant set of constitutional shifts towards a much more devolved ‘UK space’. But what will it look like?
It is to Greater Manchester that we have to look for enlightenment. Chancellor George Osborne is a local MP and in touch enough to know that Manchester has ambition and that that ambition has been thwarted by decades of centralisation by a Whitehall incapable of believing that localities even ones as big as Manchester, can be trusted to manage their own affairs. But Devo Max has spawned ‘Devo Manc’ and under the canny leadership of Manchester City Chief Executive Sir Howard Bernstein and his political leader Sir Richard Leese, the lessons of Scottish devolution are being applied to Greater Manchester. Osborne announced in a major speech in November 2014 that Manchester would be in effect a test bed for local devolution in England. There had already been quite a bit of talk of Northern Powerhouses, HS3 linking Manchester with Leeds and the like but the deal struck (explored in detail by Simon Jenkins in a lengthy article in the Guardian 13 February 2015) puts flesh on the bones, with devolved funding for a range of responsibilities including health, housing, skills and jobs. But of course you only have to visit Manchester (or a number of other of Britain’s great cities) to be reminded that a city which once built and ran its own schools, hospitals, museums, transportation and social services is actually not doing a lot more than pleading for their return. And indeed while Osborne’s package is substantial, it involves devolution of other ministers empires and powers, not his own.

The ministerial ability to give but also to take away and the lack of tax raising powers commensurate to the responsibilities, have led to a far from unqualified welcome. Locally the imposition of an elected mayor for Greater Manchester from May 2017 (and the abolition of the Police and Crime Commissioner at the same time) has been a major sticking point with existing leaders of the ten Met Districts. Commentators such as Robin Hambleton (the Planner February 2015) have been even more scathing. He has damned the process as being ‘So startling is the nature of central government policy towards local government that I suggest that we need a new word for it. To ‘Osbornify’ public policy involves introducing extreme measures to boost the power of the central state while pretending that power is being decentrailsed.’ He goes on to characterise the whole process as one where local authorities are being told by the state to decimate local services in the name of austerity.
There is certainly more than a grain of truth in this and his comment that the solidarity of local government is a casualty as localities vie for the bespoke attention of central government, is to some extent borne out in the Core Cities ‘Modern Charter for local freedom’ published in mid-February and which has something of a ‘mini -me’ catch-up feel to it. The way that the proposals in the document are framed seem unambitious: In the light of recent Devolution Deals [yet another rebranding of City Deals] government should make the following available to those that want it and can show they will deliver. And what are these bold demands of Whitehall? Under transport: ‘…local train station policy and smart ticketing’. This really does tell you just how far we have to travel to get anything that might look like genuine reassertion of local democracy in cities and counties across England. But in introducing their ‘Modern Charter’, the Core Cities remind us that the Magna Carta in 1215 set out the first constitutional freedoms in England which in turn ‘influenced all of Britain and the rest of the world, creating the foundations of modern parliamentary democracy and the rule of law’ and that, ‘today we question the right of central government to dictate so much of what local government does and what local people can decide.’ Fighting talk. Perhaps the sands are after all beginning to shift and in twenty years time we really will see this as a turning point.


This article first appeared in the March 2015 issue of Town and Country Planning.