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Government / Local politics

11 things we learnt at the Northern Futures Summit

Last week found your correspondent in Leeds for the Northern Futures Summit, a conference put together by the Centre for Cities think tank and the office of deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, to discuss how we can sort out England’s north.

Here’s what we learnt.

1. The DPM is really keen on this devolution malarkey

Just a week after Manchester was promised a wave of new powers, Clegg’s big announcement was that the two Yorkshire cities of Leeds and Sheffield were next in line. Deals could be in place by the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement on 3 December. Nor would they require a mayor, as Manchester’s did: Clegg promised there would be “no governance straitjacket”.

This is quite the turnaround: just five months ago, Leeds was locking horns with communities secretary Eric Pickles over its plan to add a levy to council tax to pay for transport improvements. Back then, Pickles gave the impression that devolution was all very well, just so long as the council didn’t want to spend any money or actually do anything. Now, it seems, those difficulties have all been magically solved.

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2. Leeds is big

The Leeds city region’s economy is bigger than those of eight European countries, as well as Wales, which has been enjoying devolution for 15 years now.

Much of that, though, is due to the size of its population, which is somewhere north of 2 million. The city’s productivity, on the other hand, is barely over the UK average (normally you’d expect cities to be quite a lot higher); the surrounding suburbs are considerably below. In other words, it’s not living up to its potential.

The Leeds city region: like West Yorkshire, with some bits added on. Image: Harkey/Wikipedia.

3. Start at the top

The mayor of Peterborough (estimated population: 190,000) is apparently dying for more powers for his town. So much so that he’s complained (a lot) to economist Jim O’Neill about the fact the final report of his City Growth Commission didn’t support them.

The reason for this, explained O’Neill, is that his case for devolution is primarily economic. More powers to the big regional cities could add 0.2 per cent to the national growth rate, he said: smaller settlements simply don’t have the population for any increase in productivity to show up in the national accounts.

4. Boil a frog slowly, and it won’t jump out of the pan

Why dribble out devolution deals one city at a time, rather than coming up with a new national settlement? Tony Travers, a professor of government at the London School of Economics, gave one possible answer: to baffle the civil service into inaction. “It’s the thin edge of the wedge act,” he said. “If you ask for too much, Whitehall will resist.” Cities minister Greg Clark put forward a similar argument at a conference last week.

Oddly enough, Sir Bob Kerslake, the permanent secretary at the Department of Communities (and thus the most senior civil servant in the room) disagreed. We shouldn’t take things too slowly, he said: “Staged can quickly become piecemeal, and with no underlying vision.”

5. Geography could work in Britain’s favour.   

Phoenix, Arizona, is too far from New York to provide its back office services, and so share in its boom. Even Buffalo, 370 miles away in upstate New York, is too far.

Birmingham, though, could plausibly play that role for London, the Harvard economist Ed Glaeser told the conference. This may not be an acceptable replacement for the proud industrial heritage that Brummies would opt for, given the choice; but it could mean more jobs in the Midlands, and reduce the pressure on the overcrowded southeast.

The Sheffield City Region. Note the tug of love over Barnsley. Image: Sheffield City Region LEP.

6. Ticketing matters as much as infrastructure

When talking about ways to turn the M62 corridor into a Ruhr-style economic powerhouse, debate has so far focused on the poor quality of transport links. But Dave Newton, the strategy director of Transport for Greater Manchester, pointed out that there’s something else we need to do: integrate ticketing systems, so that you can use bus, train and tram in a single journey without mucking about with multiple payment methods.

A “northern Oystercard” system wouldn’t solve all the region’s problems. But it would make it much easier to use existing links, improving the commuter experience – and at much lower cost than High Speed 3.

7. People hate the cold

In the US, Ed Glaeser said, the “biggest predictor of metro population growth is January temperature”: people move to places where it’s warm.

The construction boom in “sun belt” cities like Atlanta, Phoenix and Houston has driven this over the last few years, but the feelings that prompt such behaviour may have been around for decades. Surveys show that the unhappiest populations in the US are those who live in the struggling “rust belt” cities like Detroit and Cleveland. But, Glaeser noted, if you look at surveys from the 1940s, they were the unhappiest then, too.

The economist didn’t say as much – but having visited Ohio in November, we’re guessing the weather may have been a factor 70 years ago, too.

Detroit: even more fun in winter. Image: Getty. 

8. Cities should focus on services, not ideology

Glaeser also pointed out that cities are “a lousy place to try redistribution: the rich just leave”. In the US, he added, the thing most successful mayors have in common is their tendency to focus on the same sort of things: in essence, making sure that local services are up to scratch.

9. The coolest ideas are sometimes the least plausible

Professor Rachel Armstrong, a professor of experimental architecture at Newcastle University, said that one way of making the north less dependent on London would be to provide a new “chunnel”: a high-speed rail link under the North Sea to Scandinavia.

We’re pretty sure this was a joke. Still, though. Cool.

10. Bickering can kill you

There’s a real head of steam behind political devolution right now: from national government to local leaders, left to right, everyone seems to be in favour. But the momentum isn’t unstoppable, and endless debate over what form it should take could still stop reform in its tracks.

This is a pretty big reason the north is getting devolution, while the West Midlands is still debating whether Dudley is more important than Birmingham. The easiest option will always be the status quo: where the councils in a region can’t get together behind a single plan, then Westminster rule will continue by default.

11. It is impossible to talk about the north for more than three hours without someone saying, “But what about London?”

Nothing more need be said.

 
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