Whitehall, according to today’s FT editorial, should set the UK’s cities free. Who could disagree? According to the FT, it’s hard to find a British politician who does: “Both the government and the Labour party think devolving more powers over planning, infrastructure and skills could boost growth. A Conservative grandee, Lord Heseltine, published a review for the coalition in 2012 that proposed just this, setting aside a large pot of money for which local authorities could bid. The Labour party parried with a growth review of its own, led by Lord Adonis, whose initial findings were this week unveiled by Ed Miliband. These, too, call for more decisions to be taken locally.” The FT wants to go further, branding current initiatives as “timid stuff”. Even acknowledging as the FT leader writer does, that the case for devolution to cities generating faster growth is unproven, it thinks it worth a try. “Britain’s large cities need to be cut free from central government and given the powers to plan, fund and deliver the transport, housing and skills they require to thrive.Such ideas trouble the Treasury, which worries that local politicians are less skilled at allocating funding than Whitehall mandarins. These fears are misplaced. It is hard to make the case that civil servants in London know better.”
More resource implies more accountability, and the FT is in favour of more directly-elected Mayors for the big cities.
But if almost no-one disagrees, why are we still living in one of the most centralized countries in the world? Ministers in both the last New Labour government and in the present Coalition government have talked up the role of the next tier of UK cities outside London, either referring back to the Victorian heyday of muscular and confident municipalism, or looking fondly across the Channel or the Atlantic at the cultural and economic role of cities from Bilbao and Barcelona to Seattle and San Francisco. (Full disclosure: I wrote some of these speeches as the Director of Urban Policy at ODPM/CLG). We have had City Summits, Multi-Area Agreements, a Sub-National Review, City Deals, LEPs and Combined Authorities. It seems hard to believe now but only 30 years ago, central government actually abolished not only the Greater London Council but the six other metropolitan councils in England also. Invisible cities, indeed.
Given this apparent consensus, and the successful example of the GLA in London, why has so little progress been made on the ground? It may be, as the cynics would put it, that political parties are devolutionist in Opposition, but quickly discover the benefits of centralism once in office. But this doesn’t explain not just the Blair Government’s devolution to London, Scotland and Wales, but the lack of any argument for reversal of these bold devolutionary measures by the other parties. So I think we need to look at some structural factors that inhibit, or at least slow down, urban devolution. There is certainly a strong commitment in the UK to fiscal equalisation – or in more accessible language, a resistance to ‘postcode lotteries’, meaning a fairly widespread resistance to the idea of variation in quality and quantity of service delivery between areas. It may be that the relatively small size (in comparative terms) of the UK’s leading cities outside London doesn’t provide for the institutional capacity to take on an enhanced role quickly.
Whatever the reasons are, we need to understand them better – or the pace of change will continue to be slow, and the gap between London and the other cities will grow