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Government / Local politics

Devolution cannot begin and end in London and Manchester

Last month, the Chancellor and Mayor of London set out a long-term economic plan for the capital which set out ambitious new goals for growth, housing, and transport investment. Last week NHS England confirmed that Greater Manchester would receive control over its NHS budget, to the tune of £6bn – the first such region to do so.

Key Cities are always pleased to hear when a city gets more powers to promote economic development, invest in skills, and control planning, so from our perspective, that is all welcome. It shows that leading politicians have faith that a city can do the right thing for itself and its people – and for the country – if it is given the right powers.

But, as we have said before, this faith cannot begin and end in London and Manchester: it needs to be extended right across the country. If there’s a problem or opportunity for a community, we shouldn’t rely on empowering the big cities to address it. Instead all local authorities need to be empowered to use their knowledge and initiative to address their individual issues.

Economic development is a big concern in London – but it’s also a concern in Leeds. The capital needs to invest in skills – but so do Sunderland, Portsmouth, and Peterborough. Greater Manchester needs to push forward the integration of health and social care – so does the rest of the country.

The Key Cities do not want to compete with London and the other big cities for political favour – we want to compete with them in research and development, healthcare, manufacturing, tourism, and digital technology. If that means more powers for London, we welcome it. If that means more powers for Manchester, we welcome that too. All we ask is the same opportunity to bring out the best in our cities.

London and Manchester will both benefit from the announcements made over the past few days – if, of course, they are implemented properly. But that is not the real risk of these announcements. The real risk is that they narrow the focus of the debate. London and Manchester generate headlines easily – they attract political attention and stand out.

Where does that leave Key Cities? It’s incumbent on us to make the case that we should be included in the government’s devolution agenda. Before the general election, we will set out a range of concrete proposals that will help politicians to ensure that all areas of the country benefit from devolution.

We will focus on how mid-sized cities can work closely with neighbouring authorities to deliver devolution, and how we can achieve the ‘whole-system’ integration of public services. We also want to build partnerships between cities that share strengths in the same industries rather than just neighbouring authorities. Our group has a great range of expertise upon which we can help build a new, rebalanced economy that works for every region.

In the end, we are on the same side of the argument as London and Manchester. When they do better, we do better. But what we need to remember is that we also help them to succeed. When we’re free to succeed, that builds a stronger economy for everybody.

So we can’t let the momentum behind devolution carry forward only a few areas. Now is the time to turn warm words, into workable, practical solutions for our cities. We are determined to put clear options on the table, so that Westminster knows we are serious about devolution.

Cllr Paul Watson is leader of Sunderland City Council and chair of the Key Cities group of 24 mid-sized cities.
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