Last week England’s eight largest cities and the Government announced the details of the first wave of ‘city deals’: packages of powers, funding streams and financing mechanisms being devolved to city-regions. This has received relatively little mainstream publicity given that it is possibly the most exciting initiative, from the perspective of devolving power from the centre, that the Coalition has embarked on to date. But how does it fit alongside those elements of the Localism Act which did tend to hit the headlines, which placed more emphasis on local authorities ceding power to neighbourhoods and community groups?
The City Deals were originally linked closely to the elected mayors which most major English cities rejected in May. Though probably not a decisive factor in the ‘no’ votes across the country, a major criticism of the idea was that, while government rhetoric invoked London as an example of what a strong mayor could achieve, the mayoral arrangements on offer were restricted to single local authorities, rather than bringing together a city-region as in the capital – threatening unwelcome imbalances of power between neighbouring authorities and none of the much-vaunted strategic advantages of a mayoral setup. The majority of City Deals announced last week have at their heart the formation of a combined authority – a formal alliance of local authorities spanning a city-region. An archetypal example of this is Greater Manchester, the ambition and concrete achievements of which bode well for the others.
This aligns with the way that big cities tend to work in continental Europe. I’m no Europhile but there’s a reason why they take city-regions seriously: because it’s sensible and reflects the way that people live their lives in terms of travel and economic activity. As a means of enabling innovation, economic growth and cities to identify with and be proud of, it is a very good start, and the new powers and working practices to be trialled – prominently featuring the retention of more locally generated revenues and the combination of disparate national and local funding streams into single pots – are a tangible step in exactly the right direction.
We should be aware, though, that combined authorities are likely to move decision-making further away from communities. Meetings between elected members from each authority are likely to become a key decision-making forum, over which residents will exercise little influence, while the combined authority is likely to generate its own partnership framework and potentially bureaucracy which will further complicate the picture of who is responsible for what. The seductiveness of a return to a strong municipalist working practices should not be used to gloss over this gap.
Part of the disconnect may lie in the fact that the rhetoric and policy emphasis behind the City Deals is on economic growth, rather than on localism. A bridge between the two is essential sooner rather than later.