It is often said that a week is a long time in politics – a sentiment most would agree with in the aftermath of one of the most surprising general election results in recent times.
The same could now be said of the city devolution agenda. In the days since George Osborne restated his commitment to the Northern Powerhouse and to wider city devolution – providing places come together in a combined authority headed by a mayor – we have seen local politicians across UK cities set about overcoming what had previously been thought to be insurmountable obstacles to improving city region governance. Although there remains a long way to go for many places to be able to emulate Greater Manchester’s lead, changes that had just over a week ago seemed impossible are now very much in full swing.
The primary examples here can be found in the West Midlands and in West Yorkshire. Moves to create a West Midlands Combined Authority have, it is fair to say, been fraught with difficulties for many years, with local politicians from a number of authorities resisting attempts to join together. In part this reflects fears of a loss of local sovereignty to the larger metropolitan centres in the region – in particular, to Birmingham.
Further North in West Yorkshire, where progress had been made on developing a combined authority in recent years, local political opposition to a mayor for the “Leeds City Region” has been deep rooted. Citing the “multi-polar” nature of the Leeds City Region, which includes other urban areas like Bradford, Wakefield and York, local politicians have long argued that the mayoral model is not right for the area.
Yet change in both areas does now appear to be taking hold. In the last few days news has emerged that Coventry and Solihull are now prepared to join together with Birmingham and the Black Country in a combined authority. Meanwhile in West Yorkshire, the local authorities are now consulting on the introduction of a city-region mayor. Given how difficult these issues have proven to be for local politicians, these steps signal that significant progress is now possible.
The most important short-term catalyst for this change has been the chancellor himself. George Osborne has set out a clear and consistent agenda for giving more powers to UK city regions over the course of the last 18 months.
While the disruption of a general election may have allowed many cities to put off engaging with his agenda, the Conservative majority means local politicians must calculate whether they can afford to miss out on more powers of the kind Greater Manchester is receiving when there is unlikely to be another offer on the table any time soon. In this context, the need to overcome difficult local conversations regarding governance and leadership has taken on a whole new level of urgency for cities across the country.
But we also shouldn’t underestimate the longer-term work that has been undertaken by a whole series of national and local politicians, policymakers and academics either. Analyses, projects and alliances that have worked for over a decade now to improve the understanding of how urban economies work – highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of UK cities, and proposing solutions to the challenges that prevent them from fulfilling their potential – have all been important in raising cities up the political agenda and laying the groundwork locally for the changes we are now seeing.
So, are we genuinely witnessing the reversal of decades of centralisation here in the UK? Is the impossible dream of more powerful and better funded city-regions now within reach? Perhaps, but there remains much work to be done.
For a start, not all places have responded as positively to Osborne’s challenge as those in the West Midlands and West Yorkshire, with others seemingly determined to try and negotiate with the chancellor over the terms of his offer of more powers. It remains to be seen how they will react should one or two other cities agree to Osborne’s offer and strike a deal with the Chancellor.
And then there’s the matter of actually delivering the legislation to underpin these changes. Although it is hugely encouraging that the Chancellor committed to including a Cities Devolution Bill in the forthcoming Queen’s Speech, the bill’s journey through Parliament is unlikely to be smooth, with opposition from a number of quarters already emerging this week.
But despite these dissenting voices, a week on from his speech in Manchester, it is clear that the Chancellor’s agenda is already affecting positive change on the ground for many UK city regions. That can only bode well for the prospects of real devolution in the months and years ahead.
Ben Harrison is director of partnerships at the Centre for Cities. This article was originally posted on the think tank’s blog.
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