1. Governance
November 5, 2014

Cities minister on greater devolution to London: not if, but when

By Barbara Speed

Yesterday, we reported on one entirely unexpected result of Greater Manchester’s devolution deal: cries for more power to the poor, under-appreciated town of London. As a letter in this Monday’s Evening Standard, jointly sent by a group of institutions and think-tanks, put it:

The capital faces formidable challenges: a severe housing shortage, growing congestion and high levels of unemployment and poverty. There are no guarantees London will remain a city superpower if we don’t meet these challenges.

Well, at yesterday’s London Conference, organised by the Centre for London (you get the idea), the drumbeat was even louder. During a debate on devolution, Greg Clark, Minister for Universities, Science and Cities, said the question wasn’t whether London would gain devolved powers, but “how much, and when”.

Following the deal offered to Manchester, Clark said he has the “full support of the prime minister” in welcoming pitches from cities hoping for their very own devolution deal. He said he’s expecting proposals from London’s city government “immediately”. What’s more, he believes a deal offered to the capital could “go much further” than what was offered to Greater Manchester.

This deal-based approach to devolution has attracted plenty of criticism, as it requires cities to come to the Treasury with requests for devolved powers – effectively, they must talk their way out of Whitehall’s grasp.  Clark hinted that the “specificity” of Manchester’s requests (which included control over skills funding and tram extensions) had helped them secure the deal.

This tip makes the process sound a little like applying to a job in a consultancy – include the key words, ask the right questions, and you’re in.  During the debate, Tony Travers, head of LSE’s London research centre, pointed out that plans for devolution to Scotland don’t rely on the country “jumping through these hoops, and coming to London to explain how they’ll spend the money “. So why, one wonders, should cities?

A member of the audience added that in Western Europe (Germany, for example) regions’ autonomy is ingrained in central government policy, not conditional on whether they can perform successfully to a panel of ministers.

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Clark answered these criticisms by explaining that he favours the “city-by-city approach”, because it can be implemented more quickly than a widespread, blanket change to city governance. And, he said with an encouraging smile, the changes in power distribution will amount to constitutional change: “What has been devolved will not be taken back.” 

London’s mayor was not so optimistic. In conversation with Ben Rogers, the director for the Centre for London, Boris Johnson said exchanges with the Treasury on devolution “weren’t going brilliantly”, and quipped: “If anyone has any influence with the upper echelons of the Tory party, do let me know”.

Johnson added that cities are “infantilised” under the current system; forced to “beg for penny packets of funding from the treasury”.

Guffaws at the thought of devolution to London may stem from the fact that it doesn’t look much like an infant, scrabbling for pennies: it looks like a large, rich city that’s not short on power. As Ben Rogers sadly put it: “One friend said to me that asking for more powers for London is a little like asking for a ‘men’s day’.”

Somewhat counter intuitively, though, devolution to London may do more for the UK’s other large cities than any other single policy. It could lead to London paying for its own capital projects, and thereby open up central government budgets for schemes elsewhere. And, for those sick of the sight of the capital, it could emphasise that London isn’t the UK city – it’s just one of many. 

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