Devolution really does seem to matter to this Government, and cities need to seize the opportunity with both hands – but making the aspiration a reality when there is so little resource and so much to change is the big stumbling block. That’s been my main reflection following yesterday’s announcements about next steps on City Deals at the event we co-hosted with the Cabinet Office (some pictures are available here).
Our briefing on the announcements is available here. The substantive points were:
- More power and funding will be devolved to Core Cities provided they deliver on their original commitments;
- 20 cities (14 large, 6 fast-growing) will be able to compete for a Wave 2 City Deal, which will focus on the biggest barrier to local economic growth;
- A ‘core package’ of measures will be on offer to Wave 2 cities, which all qualifying cities will have access to regardless of their main focus.
While there are always things to quibble with - and as a good think tank we will be highlighting them (are they the right places, are they the right geographies, are they the right criteria etc.) – overall it’s great news that the Government is continuing to devolve power to cities, and sticking to its guns that it’s cities first, even if that may change in Wave 3.
Government really does seem to be committed to devolving power, not just because the carefully-crafted speeches said so but also because so many Ministers were there to announce the Deals. Two Ministers at an event like this is relatively uncommon. But four – including the Deputy Prime Minister and representatives of three different Government departments – is really unusual and shows not just the cross-cutting nature of the City Deals, but also the desire of all those Ministers to be associated with next steps on City Deals.
But the big challenge is likely to be sticking to this agenda in the face of lack of resources, cultural opposition and ongoing pressure to offer the same to everywhere.
Lack of resource is pervasive at all levels of national and local government. The much-praised Cities Unit acted fast to deliver the first wave of Deals; despite expansion, it will be under considerable pressure trying to ensure Wave 1 Deals deliver, 20 cities craft credible propositions for Wave 2, and then however many Wave 2 Deals we end up with are hammered out, agreed and then delivered too.
Cultural challenges should also not be underestimated. While some of Westminster and Whitehall get this agenda, many do not buy the argument that devolution can deliver. The culture of centralisation developed over decades will not be easy to change, and government departmental silos simply throw up more barriers to joining up policy in the cities where it is delivered. But the cultural challenges are by no means all on one side: cities need to step up to the plate and set out specifically what they want – not just more powers – and how it will deliver better outcomes.
Finally, politicians and Whitehall are always under pressure to offer the same to everyone and everywhere. Whenever the Centre sets out its evidence that places are different and therefore different policy options should be offered – still within a national framework – the response is ‘but that would mean different policies in different places!’. And we say ‘yes, that’s the point’. The commitment to offer Wave 2 cities a package of policy options that draws on the best from Wave 1 is a positive move. But why not open this up further and make it a menu of policy options to all cities and counties that can demonstrate how they will deliver jobs and growth as a result of having these powers? That way, not everywhere has to have the same ‘core package’, but everywhere has the chance to access some of the fairly incremental policy changes that could make a big difference to jobs and growth on the ground.
There’s a lot more to do if we’re going to devolve as much power to UK cities as their international counterparts have. But this is a positive step in the right direction. Now is the time to make it happen, both through City Deals and other policies, and the Centre will be doing all it can to push this agenda over the next few years and into the Spending Review and the next election.