The city devolution agenda is an increasing a focus for growth aspirations. So far negotiations have only involved the eight Core Cities, but Cities Minister Greg Clark announced back in January that groups of mid-sized cities should begin to prepare their ideas. However, four months on Government is still debating how to deal with these places. Are City Deals about to enter a new, exciting second phase or are they running out of steam?
As a timely letter to Clark from the "Growth Cities Network" group points out, the UK’s fastest growing cities are outside the core group, and in a better position to deliver increased growth at a lower cost. Centre for Cities’ Investing in Growth Cities report analysed their potential earlier this year. Nor is growth potential confined to the South East: cities across the country are queuing up to join the conversation.
Government is therefore coming under increasing pressure to deliver on its ambitious devolution agenda for cities, but some important questions remain unanswered. Not least, there is the question of what next for the cities whose voters said no to a mayor. Accountability through a mayor or a combined authority has so far proved the only acceptable currency for deal-making. Now Greg Clark needs to show flexibility, and demonstrate that making deals that are right for each place is more important than political objectives driven by the centre.
Willingness to engage is also a crucial factor. The Core Cities group was self-defining and therefore theoretically easier to engage with, but the question of how Government will manage negotiations with other cities remains hanging. Grown-up conversations rather than beauty contests should be the way forward. Future city deal discussions must be triggered a simple process to determine the quality of ideas emerging from mid-sized cities, rather than by using complex or artificial qualifying criteria.
Getting conversations going is just the start, and there is wider uncertainty around crucial growth drivers. For example, can cities really influence the skills agenda through the funding and delivery structures now in place? Does Government see housebuilding as part of the growth agenda? And what is the future of infrastructure funding when the regional growth fund pot runs out? These matters of substance can only be addressed through detailed discussion, but someone needs to make the first move. If Government is otherwise engaged, they should expect cities to start banging loudly on their door very soon.
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