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.