City deals: A missed opportunity?

Martin Stott

Today is the deadline for the submission of the second round of ‘City Deals’.  Twenty cities and city regions are putting proposals to DCLG based around four ambitious objectives to:

    • Boost local economic growth
    • Rebalance the economy spatially and sectorally
    • Decentralise the powers and levers cities need to drive local economic growth and
    • Strengthen their governance and leadership

When they were originally announced by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in a speech in Leeds in December 2011, City Deals were part of the carrot to encourage large cities to opt for elected mayors. Devolution of major new powers and budgets to new city leaders were promised. Unfortunately with the exception of Bristol, the electorates didn’t play ball. But DCLG pressed on and the deals were announced in July 2012, with Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield – thereby ironically, cutting the new mayor in Bristol, George Ferguson (who wasn’t elected until November 2012), out of the process. At the time of the DPM’s announcement, there was a sense that this might be a real and significant constitutional change, in tandem with the arrival of the new city mayors. But between the launch speech and the reality of policy on the ground, things became a lot more prosaic, as the agreements struck in 2012 lay bare.

As ever with central-local government relations, the reality has in no way matched the original hype and  in a time of retrenchment generally and ever smaller budgets for local government in particular, DCLG have been in no position to  provide anything very much in the way of new resources. Staff in Councils and Local Enterprise Partnerships (who are key players in the proposed new ‘city deals’ because of their focus on private sector led economic growth) comment that ‘there is no real money in it’, and that the process and likely outcome is similar to that seen in the negotiation of Local Public Service Agreements (LPSA) and the abortive ‘Total Place’ initiatives under the last Government.

There is one striking difference between city deals and LPSA’s, picked up by the Green Alliance in their report Green Cities; using city deals to drive low carbon growth. Whereas LPSAs all had a climate change/green economy strand in them, the city deals struck with the ‘big eight’ cities have this dimension largely as an add-on, if that. The Green Alliance found that only Leeds framed its approach to growth with a low carbon vision for the city and that apart from Newcastle, few deals acknowledged the role of tackling climate change in securing resilient economic growth. Bristol, a city whose image has been predicated on an at least vaguely greenish tinge, has a City Deal that makes no mention of the subject.

Now the programme is being extended to a ‘second wave’ of twenty localities from ‘Sunderland and the North East’ to Plymouth. The group is made up of the 14 next largest English cities (after the ‘big eight’) plus a further six – such as Greater Cambridge and Milton Keynes – which recorded the highest population growth between 2001 and 2010.  One of the striking aspects of this group of cities – the smaller and fast growing ones – is that they in many cases already have a significant ‘green economy’ dimension, or are cities whose location  brings opportunities waiting to be exploited, such as Hull and Teeside. But if the poor record of the first round of City Deals is any kind of baseline – and with the second round of city deals focussing on a single initiative rather than a range of measures – the prognosis for more than a handful ending up taking advantage of this crucial part of the ‘rebalancing’ of the UK economy looks pretty bleak.

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Martin Stott was Head of Environment and Resources at Warwickshire County Council until the autumn of 2011, when he concluded a 25 year career in local government.  He has recently become an INLOGOV Associate.

Bristol: The Start of an Independents Revolution?

Martin Stott

As the only city to hold a mayoral referendum last May and vote in favour, Bristol confirmed its reputation as a city that marches to the beat of a different drum. The mayoral election in November reinforced this maverick status with electors decisively (albeit on a turnout of only 27.9%) electing Independent candidate George Ferguson as Mayor.

The idea of elected mayors has been around for over a decade, one imported uncritically from the US and grafted onto the existing system of local government here. Catherine Durose in her blog ‘Elected mayors: the wrong solution to the wrong problem’ argues that seeing elected mayors as the solution to the ‘democratic deficit’ is wrong. It certainly hasn’t fired up voters, with nine out of the ten cities conducting referenda in May rejecting them –  as they did when asked during earlier attempts by New Labour to introduce the concept outside London.

Durose is right in observing that almost all the elected mayors that do exist are already mainstream politicians (ex-MPs or council leaders) and this makes Bristol’s choice more interesting. George Ferguson is a colourful architect and entrepreneur with a track record in making things happen, including the Tobacco Factory in Southville, a multi-use regeneration project that includes café, bistro, apartments and a theatre. Despite his history  a Liberal Democrat – he only resigned from the party in May –  Ferguson stood as an Independent and won decisively, beating the favourite, Labour’s Marvin Rees, by 37,353 (54.4%) to 31,259 (46.6%)  on the second round. He also led by a substantial margin in the first round.

One of the interesting aspects of the result is just how badly the three main parties did, obtaining  between them, just 45% of the vote in the first round. The Bristol Post described Ferguson as making ‘mincemeat of the three major parties’.  While this appears to be true, it is also a reflection of the profound disconnect between party politics and the voter, expressed nationally in the very low turnout for Police and Crime Commissioners on the same day  – as does the election of 12 independent candidates as PCCs.

In Bristol, Labour claimed afterwards that Ferguson won because the Tory and Lib Dem vote collapsed. This is partly true – neither of them even managed 10%, but it begs questions about Labour’s ability to connect with and energise voters too. There was a distinct split across the city in terms of turn out, with relatively high percentages in middle class areas like Henlease (43%), Clifton, Redland, Bishopston, Windmill Hill and Westbury-on-Trym but really poor turn outs in Labour strongholds like Southmead, St George, Filwood and Hartcliffe (11%). The result of the mayoral election may have been important to the Labour Party, but its voters don’t seem to have agreed.

Four days before the vote, Ferguson held an ‘Independents gathering’ in the Tobacco Factory theatre. The audience, numbering well over 100, was surprisingly large for a Monday afternoon event.  With him on the stage were Independent veteran ex-MP Martin Bell, independent candidates from Liverpool and London and Independent PCC candidate for Avon and Somerset Sue Mountstevens. Bell, though very supportive, clearly thought that like the Liverpool and London independents, Ferguson and Mountstevens were going to be another pair of plucky losers. By the end of the week both had won, Mountstevens with the largest PCC mandate in the country, and Ferguson humiliating all the mainstream political parties. We may yet record that ‘the march of the independents’ started out in Bristol.

Martin Stott was Head of Environment and Resources at Warwickshire County Council until the autumn of 2011, when he concluded a 25 year career in local government.  He has recently become an INLOGOV Associate.

Local Government and the Democratic Mandate: An Outdated Model?

Martin Stott

Local government could never be described as fashionable, yet today there is more talk than ever about the importance of ‘the local’.  However, this has converted into less, rather than more, freedom to act locally.  Whitehall’s desire to control is strong, as the current freeze on council tax rises demonstrates.  Local government hasn’t suffered as much at the hands of Whitehall as the NHS, where the current reorganisation follows countless previous ones – none of which have any clear rationale other than to undo the actions of a previous Minister and ‘prove’ that the new Minister is in charge.

The reason that local government has remained untouched by similar reorganisation is because it has one priceless asset that the NHS has never had.  An independent democratic mandate.

But that’s the rub.  Nothing drives Westminster politicians wilder than others challenging their supposedly democratic right to rule.  But local government did and still does.  Hence it’s abiding unpopularity in Whitehall and Westminster.  The excuses are many and varied – ‘inefficiency’ (when was democracy ever efficient?), ‘cost’ (let us try and recall local government equivalents of Whitehall’s IT and defence procurement fiascos, amongst others), ‘postcode lotteries’ (isn’t that a subjective term for local decision-making?), ‘poor quality of elected members (remind me which political parties put up these candidates?).

In the end though, the reality was summed up for me by a member of Tony Blair’s Cabinet, himself ex-local government, who when I asked him once over dinner how many local authorities he thought there should be in England, replied firmly “one”.

The government’s plan for fragmentation, competing foci of accountability and localism without democracy (‘localism lite’) has continued apace.  Examples of this include:

  • Police Commissioners.  Elections in November 2012 will confer a certain cloak of democratic legitimacy but with a few exceptions, their jurisdictions will have little connection to existing democratic jurisdictions.
  • The NHS.  It’s hard, even now, to know what the NHS reforms will really mean in practice, with local authorities having been ‘given’ responsibility for public health – as if environmental health, trading standards or waste management had nothing to do with the subject already.  And will GP Commissioners engage effectively with local authorities about the health of their populations when their accountability remains to Whitehall?
  • Schools.  Not long ago, local authorities were deliverers of education from 4-18, however this is now disappearing with the introduction of academies, foundation schools, free schools and the like.  The mantra is ‘freeing schools from local authority control’, but this means that the schools will have no direct democratic link with their localities.
  • The planning system.  The right of individual property owners to develop their land was nationalised under the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act.  The process of granting or refusing ‘planning permission’ was then delegated to local authorities.  Brick by brick, the Localism Act, and the Infrastructure Planning Commission and its successors have removed the foundations of democratic local determination.
  • Elected Mayors.  The argument for mayors is simple.  A single point of accountability for things that go wrong – or right – in a locality.  The problem is that giving a single person a lot of power can be a recipe for corruption, and doesn’t allow for the nuances, ambiguities and consensus-building that is so important in local democracy.

Despite all this, by and large, local government has risen to the challenges of the last two decades.  Gone are the command and control attitudes – the diverse ecology of local public service provision has made a new way of working essential and local government has found itself sharing responsibility rather than working alone.

There remains a distinct division of opinion in local government between the ‘local authority as service provider’ view and the ‘local authority as community leader and local voice’ perspective.  The two aren’t necessarily in conflict, but the rise of the customer has led to a view in some quarters that service provision is all.  High quality value for money public services are a very important part of what local government offers.  But if that was all it offered, why both with the democracy bit?

There are plenty of companies delivering high quality public services efficiently, but there is a gap in the market for local leadership, the championing of ‘place’, the focus for the expression of local democratic legitimacy.  Sadly the trend seems to be in the wrong direction as, rather than bolstering local government, its powers and responsibilities are being stripped.

Martin Stott was Head of Environment and Resources at Warwickshire County Council until the autumn of 2011, when he concluded a 25 year career in local government.  He has recently become an INLOGOV Associate.