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Government / Local politics

What will the referendum result mean for Scotland's cities?

Ever since Sunday’s YouGov poll, the certainty expressed by so many in Westminster that the result of the Scottish referendum was definitely going to be “no” has been shaken to its foundations. For the first time, the ramifications of a “yes” vote are starting to be seriously considered.

For PMQs to be cancelled and the three party leaders to go up in a show of togetherness (without campaigning together, of course) is a demonstration of how concerned they are. The Prime Minister’s plea that a “yes” vote should not be used to give the “effing Tories” a kick is also a significant acknowledgement of the resentment felt by many in Scotland about being governed by a party that they did not vote for (there is only one Conservative MP in Scotland).

Whatever the final result next week – and that is entirely up to the Scots to decide – there will certainly be more powers and freedoms on offer to Scotland, and in fairly short order. The other parties have already signed up to Gordon Brown’s commitment to agree further powers for Scotland by St Andrew’s Day (30 November), and to have the draft laws in place by Burns’ Night (25th January): more powers will be given to Scotland at breakneck speed.

Scotland already has far more powers than other parts of the UK; whatever the result of the referendum, it is likely to receive even greater autonomy. But as politicians and civil servants finalise the details, they need to be mindful of some of the challenges.

First, there’s a risk that all additional powers will go to the parliament in Holyrood, with Scottish cities losing their ability to adapt policies to local needs. This would be concerning: Scottish cities are vital to the Scottish economy, but each needs different types of investment to thrive. It’s notable that, despite their importance, cities have scarcely featured in visions for an independent or more devolved Scotland.

Second, it will be impossible to have a more powerful Scotland without a debate about what happens to the rest of the country. My concern is that, in conversations so far, the focus has primarily been on more power for English regions – yet no institutions currently exist at that level.

On the other hand, city region institutions are thriving, ready to make use of additional powers and the level at which the economy operates. It’s vital we have proper debate about what devolution means for England, to ensure that any devolved powers are neither too centralised (that is, reside in Whitehall), nor go to a level of governance that no longer exists.

Third, there’s a very real risk for cities across the UK that, whatever the results of the referendum, Whitehall civil servants will be tied up for months making the changes happen: that could mean delays for all kinds of other policies, not least in those which support growth in the cities where most of the housing and jobs growth will be.

It’s great to see national politicians waking up to see the passion that greater local control can evoke – and the referendum is likely to mean this conversation doesn’t go away. But there’s a need to ensure that, in the rush to give Scotland more powers, we don’t neglect the important role cities Dundee and Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Glasgow play in supporting growth, prosperity and social outcomes. The same goes for major cities in England, too.

Alexandra Jones is the chief executive of the Centre for Cities. This article originally appeared on the think tank’s blog.
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