When the Government announced a series of "City Deals" in December it marked a significant step towards the kind of devolution of powers and funding to cities that the Centre has been arguing for over the past seven years.
But it’s the success of those next few teetering steps towards greater autonomy for cities – working out specific areas where devolution can happen, implementing those policies, making sure they’re successful, then working out what else might be devolved - that will determine whether this time cities get to walk by themselves, or whether central government swoops down again to hold cities’ hands.
Centre for Cities has been involved in convening conversations between cities and Whitehall around "city deals" over the past few weeks, and a few clear themes have emerged that should be of interest to other cities considering what they might ask for from city deals.
First, what’s on the table from Government is firmly a "deal". It’s about something for something; about cities “making Government an offer it can’t refuse”, as Greg Clark MP, the Minister for Cities, puts it. If cities can’t promise better outcomes or cost savings – and our research suggests that cities have the potential to offer one or both in a whole range of areas - then they’re going to struggle to convince mandarins that they should gain new powers, funding or roles.
Second, the focus is firmly on specifics. Rather than general notions of partnership working, successful city deals are going to be the ones that focus on specific areas where additional powers or funding for cities can make a difference.
Third, it’s also clear that this is seen as an ongoing process, with further powers possible when cities demonstrate what they can do. This is important. There are good reasons why the Government is focusing on specifics – it makes it much more likely that change will happen and makes it much easier to demonstrate progress. But if the UK is to have a better balance between national and local powers then we have a lot further to travel down the road towards devolution than individual deals on specific issues can ever hope to achieve on their own.
With Greg Clark announcing at our Cities Outlook launch that City Deals would be extended to cities beyond the 8 Core Cities, the Centre for Cities is going to be doing further work to bring together different groups of cities to talk about what those city deals might look like. More on this soon.
Follow @AlexJonesCities on Twitter