A day for devolution

Daniel Goodwin

Thursday 14th May 2015 might not see celebrations in 800 years’ time in quite the same way as Monday 15th June 1215, which saw the sealing of Magna Carta. However it did see two events which are quietly momentous in local government terms. In the morning the Core Cities launched their Devolution Declaration in London, setting out five actions that they sought from government. And in the afternoon, in Manchester, George Osborne appeared to meet the first of these by announcing that the Queen’s Speech would include a Cities Devolution Bill, granting powers over housing, transport, planning and policing.

The Core Cities were caught by surprise and, whilst apparently delighted, had to make hasty arrangements to be present at the announcement. It remains to be seen whether the other actions set out in their package of measures will be implemented quite as speedily, time will tell. However they include a devolution commission, a place-based Comprehensive Spending Review, much broader fiscal retention and devolution and a Constitutional Convention to address UK-wide issues.

There has already been much comment in the local government press and on social media about the two events, so I will not try to summarise them here. However I am struck not only by the pace of change, but also the tenor of the debate. I have compared these with the points made by INLOGOV in its response to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s work on codifying the UK constitution.

We considered that any form of devolution will need to be addressed in the round. It should not just bolt on new service or tax based powers. Our response considered that there needs simultaneously to be a review of the responsibilities of individuals, communities, cities, regions and countries within the UK. In doing so it should also consider the questions of the extent of devolution of local government within all four countries and not just restrict itself to England. We considered that there should be some key guarantees on local determination, perhaps in line with the European Charter for Local Self Government, to which the UK is a signatory.

The 2015 General Election has left the UK with a highly diverse political picture in the four nations and at the more local level within them. The Government’s challenge is to find strengths in that diversity and prevent it turning into division. The key question is whether the changes will provide sufficient means of self-determination and self-government and embed these effectively in the as yet unwritten constitution. This will depend on the extent to which they are founded on community leadership and capability rather simply expediency in facing service cuts. Will the discussion be one about the principles of power sharing rather than long-winded discussions about structure? Can we have a debate on the future of the UK as a modern nation rather than one focused on service structures in England?

The Core Cities are to be commended for setting out their Declaration. It is an ambitious document which sees the challenge as ‘working together nationally and locally in a different way [to] transform the lives of millions and ensure our country can compete in an increasingly globalised and complex world’. The Cities Devolution Bill, with careful attention to principle as well as expediency and in the context of wider constitutional renewal, could just be the way to start to make that happen and help to address the wider devolution challenges which the UK faces following the General Election.

Know your local Councillor Photographs - St Albans - May 2008

Daniel Goodwin’s career has mainly been in local government, starting in libraries and cultural services and progressing through policy and corporate services. He is particularly interested in policy into practice issues, the links between strategy and finance, local leadership and the politics of communities and place. He is a regular contributor to journals, conferences and seminars.

Core Activities: notes from the Core Cities Summit, February 2015

On the 11th February over 300 people from across the public sector met for the Core Cities Summit in Glasgow. This post summarises the point reached so far and some of the conference’s live issues, and suggests three areas for further consideration: how to involve MPs and MSPs more fully, engaging communities in the debate and considering what kind of country the UK should become.

Core Cities at the forefront of innovation

The Core Cities buzz continued in Glasgow on 11th February at its well attended summit which launched the next stages in cities-based devolution discussions. The Core Cities’ approach to innovation through collaboration has challenged the government by setting the pace. It was a cross-border event which included a look at how the next round of devolution proposals will affect Glasgow, as an indication of the next stages of the development of the Core Cities campaign.

The event pages are online and the Twitter hashtag #devosummit is searchable for reactions. The summit launched both the Core Cities charter for devolution ‘A Modern Charter for Local Freedom’ and the Respublica report Restoring Britain’s City States.

A charter for devolution and recommendations for action

The Charter sets itself in the context of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta and the waves of change emanating from the 2014 Scottish Referendum vote. It calls for action to consider what a ‘modern, mature state for the UK’ would look like, one which enables prosperity, equality and democracy. It sees itself as being applicable to the whole of the UK and not just to the Core Cities.

Devolution to local places is at the heart of its proposals with local freedom to make strategic decisions, to tax and invest, and to determine the shape of strategic planning and service delivery at the sub-regional level. To enable this, it calls on the Government to establish an independent body to facilitate devolution and oversee change, while ensuring that communities are strengthened, key investments are made, services are transformed and decision making devolved further to the appropriate level in communities, neighbourhoods and individuals.

Respublica’s report, Restoring City States, focuses on city devolution. It seeks to build on the recent city deals with Manchester and the Sheffield City Region in order to forge a ‘rebalancing of the relationship between central government and cities. Many of the issues set out in the Charter for Devolution are explored in more depth and underpin the report’s eight recommendations.

Core Cities’ case for change

Opening the Summit, Cllr Sir Richard Leese stressed that the summit was about a constitutional settlement, not just the devolution of powers. Ben Page highlighted the fact that whilst people are dubious about whether devolution is of relevance, they are concerned about inequality and there is potentially the space to try something new and to engage them in debate, as shown in the Scottish Referendum. In the Scottish context, Jim Murphy MP sought greater devolution by the Scottish Government to its cities. However Keith Brown MSP wondered whether local government could make more of its existing powers and was uncertain whether legislative change was really needed to achieve the Core Cities’ aims, a rehearsal of some of the debate nationally.

Considering reform to powers and fiscal matters, Danny Alexander MP wanted to see the government look at the devolution of stamp duty, amongst other measures, with a clear fiscal base to municipal re-empowerment. Philip Blond, Respublica, considered that the post 1945 model of the state was no longer fit for purpose and sought a new model to deal with a much more complex public service challenge. He considered that there might need to be some intervention in some ‘trailing’ cities to jump-start change, but considered cities to be the only agents nationally capable of bringing equality in an age of globalisation. Cllr Nick Forbes called for the next Comprehensive Spending Review to be based on place, rather than the individual spending limits of departments.

On the future form of devolution, Cllr Nick Forbes also stressed the need for cities not to be ‘walled cities’ but ones open to their surrounding partners, rooted in their local hinterland, pulling together to develop infrastructure, and linked into ideas about social justice. Pat Ritchie highlighted the need for devolution to be capable of adaptation to the different needs of different places. And Mayor Jules Pipe, speaking for London Councils, highlighted a need for devolution thinking to extend nationally, with further change needed in London, for example, to meet the extent of empowerment sought by the Core Cities.

Gaps and challenges

The focus of the day focused more on the growth agenda that it was on the social development of cities, although they are of course entwined, there were also some interesting gaps and unresolved issues.

The first gap relates to national politicians, the devolution debate has made much of devolving from government to city or place, but little has been said about the role of MPs (or MSPs). All of the cities involved in the discussion have numerous national representatives who are currently not part of the picture. There was talk on the day about the development of local Public Accounts Committees but as yet no sign of the development of a shadow version to see if it might work and help to hold a core city to account.

The second gap points out there has been little discussion of the quality of community in cities and aspirations for their development. Perhaps understandably much of the discussion has been aimed at central government, but the relationship of local people to each other and to the local state needs to be as much a part of the desired debate about the modern form of the state as a whole as any of the issues highlighted at the summit.

The third gap relates to the fundamental question of the kind of state the UK wants to be in the future (and here it is worth pointing out that this has been almost solely a local government led debate which of necessity does not yet include key local players in national services such as the NHS). This is a debate which perhaps should be at the core of the general election campaign, but is currently not on the agenda.

Next steps for everyone?

In its submission to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s consultation on the constitution, INLOGOV said (amongst other things):

English devolution to a system based around London and the core cities would carry considerable risks if it becomes an exercise which bolts-on powers without thinking through the systemic change that is needed. We need to resolve the question of responsibilities, of citizens, communities, cities and regions, before the reallocation of powers.

… The UK’s greatest potential is contained in its networked nature, and the same can be said of the best cities and counties. What is needed is therefore constitution which does not just chunk up centralised power and devolve it.

… There should be a clear agreement about how power is shared (rather than devolved) between different legitimate and competent parts of the UK state, including local, regional and national governments.

So the current debate is a necessary one about devolution, but perhaps needs to develop into one about power sharing. To return to the Magna Carta theme, the Barons sought limitations to the exercise of central power and a clear basis for sharing it. They also did not rely solely on rational argument but potentially had the means to force King John to comply with their demands. It will be interesting to see how the Core Cities muster their forces and deploy them during the coming election and beyond.

As Sir Richard Leese recognised, the number of places that can be considered as core cities is necessarily limited. However it is clear that the approach that Core Cities have set out is one which has its application across England especially and the UK as a whole. All can benefit from the learning about ‘what works’ in creative, collective approaches to change and the development of confident, positive narratives about places and their people. And INLOGOV is uniquely placed to offer support by sharing learning and exploring approaches which challenge barriers of stagnation, short-sightedness, parochialism or old rivalries, all of which get in the way of what is important: long-term development based on outward-looking collaboration.

Know your local Councillor Photographs - St Albans - May 2008

Daniel Goodwin is an Associate Fellow of INLOGOV. He was previously Executive Director of Finance & Policy at the Local Government Association and Chief Executive of St Albans City & District Council.

Rebalancing Britain

Martin Stott

The Scottish referendum campaign is having an interesting knock-on impact on English political debate. The position and dominance of London – the place Scots most dislike about the United Kingdom in its present form – is being looked at more critically. There have been a couple of think tank reports recently, but the debate has moved quite a way beyond the narrow audiences that these reports usually attract. That in itself is a reflection of the way the ground is shifting.

First out of the blocks was the Centre for Cities’ ‘Cities Outlook 2014’ report. The document is mainly pretty dry, though jazzes up with unusual graphics and some different takes on the issues. Basically it is saying that London has become super dominant in the UK economy, so much so that four out of five private sector jobs are created in London and that every major city outside the South East is losing young people to London with one in three 22-30 year olds ending up there. Put another way, London accounted for ten times as many private sector jobs as any other city and also saw a growth in public sector jobs as well. By contrast Bradford, Sheffield, Bristol, Southampton, Blackpool and Glasgow all saw employment shrink in both the public and private sectors.

All this is very much backed up by word done for the Core Cities group (Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester, Leeds, Nottingham, Liverpool, Newcastle and Sheffield) who have initiated an Independent City Growth Commission chaired by Jim O’Neill, the Manchester born ex- Goldman Sachs Chief Executive. Their focus is on how to make Britain less focused on London in order to promote higher levels of national growth and create a less divided nation. Their plan is to issue a final report in the autumn in an attempt to set the agenda for the period leading up to the 2015 General Election. Essentially, the Core Cities interim report ‘metro growth: the UK’s economic opportunity’ argues that cities outside the South east need to be built into larger economic zones with better connections between them to create bigger markets and the kind of economies of scale for business that are to be found in London and the South East.

Meanwhile, the BBC’s Evan Davis has been busying himself on a very similar topic. His mini-series ‘Mind the gap: London vs the rest’ on BBC 2 looked at how London manages to earn more than one fifth of Britain’s income and continues to pull away in terms of growth and development while other regions still feel the sting of recession. Davis had some jolly japes in tall cranes and large diggers across London in search of the answers to his questions, but he knew that one very important answer was staring him in the face: public investment in intrastructure. Transport infrastructure investment is currently running at £5000 per person pa in London (think Cross Rail) and just £700 per person pa in the English regions.

Slightly perversely Davis took his viewers to visit the centre of his proposed new city-region-to-challenge-London: Hebden Bridge. But of course he had a point and it was that Hebden Bridge is in the centre of a huge potential city region stretching across England from Liverpool to Hull via Manchester and Leeds. Hebden Bridge is in the middle of this city region in the Pennines, rather winningly described by one of its residents as the city centre with an ‘inverted green belt’ – and places like Manchester and Leeds as its ‘suburbs’. This is far from outlandish. This part of the north of England really did challenge London for economic supremacy in the 19th century with its coal, steel and cotton as well as ports to export to the Empire.

But can it be revived as an economic counter-balance to London? That seems to depend on political will and a desire to invest in the area, especially its transport infrastructure. The Centre for Cities report makes a telling comparison. While acknowledging that the combined economies of Leeds and Manchester are just one fifth the size of London, it argues that they are unlikely to make the best of this combined scale because of ‘weak transport links’ citing ‘the distance between Leeds and Manchester is around 30% shorter than between Cambridge and London, yet the quickest train takes four minutes longer’. Jim O’Neill makes a similar point in an Observer interview about HS2, which he thinks will exacerbate the problem and simply make Birmingham a suburb of London, arguing that the money should be spent instead on creating a web of good links in the north: ‘In my judgement, for the national economy, that is way more important than improving the speed of the link from London to any of these places’.

Improving transport links in a new ‘super city’ is one dimension, but a couple of other factors are worthy of mention as well. London is the financial, political and cultural capital of the UK. This doesn’t give a lot of space for other cities to shine, unlike in say Germany with Frankfurt as its financial capital, Berlin as its political capital and Hamburg as its cultural capital. The same is true in Italy (Rome/Milan) and the USA, amongst others. Moving Whitehall and Westminster out of London would do them a power of good. If Scotland stays in the UK, the British Parliament could meet in London occasionally, but the four ‘nations’ would have Parliaments of their own in other cities.

More prosaically, the Centre for Cities report suggests that all the core cities should have access to the same policy powers as London has, i.e. strategic planning powers, powers over the budget for its transport system and police force, and a super-city wide elected assembly and directly elected mayor. A revival of regional identity and local government could yet come out of these debates, and not before time.


Martin Stott joined INLOGOV as an Associate in 2012 after a 25 year career in local government.