The Devolution Declaration was launched by the Core Cities today, alongside a statement from George Osborne, outlining the Government’s commitment to including a Cities Devolution Bill in the Queen’s Speech. So metro-mayors and devolution of power to cities and city regions is firmly on the agenda, but with the usual caveats. To get the extra resources and responsibility cities will have to go along with the idea of directly elected metro-mayors with combined authorities. There seems to be little room for debate about local solutions or local structures, despite the rhetoric about local decisions made by those who know their local areas best. As Osborne makes very clear, the choice is up to each local area but the model is non-negotiable:
“I will not impose this model on anyone. But nor will I settle for less.”
As we know, Manchester has already signed up to this. Others in the north are said to be willing to go along with the model in order to get the control they desire, with decisions about Hull, Newcastle, Leeds and Birmingham all expected to be next in line. As a reward for accepting a centrally imposed structure they will be given greater control and responsibility for housing, transport and skills at a local level. Add to that the potential for control over health budgets, and maybe even police, and you can see why it’s an attractive proposition for local councils and politicians to consider. We have consistently heard arguments about the over-centralised state in England, where Westminster rules. These proposals at least begin to change some of this central regime. However, the imposition of one model would seem to fly in the face of localism. Why would something that is right for Manchester necessarily work in Birmingham, or Bristol?
The debate in each city region is likely to be quite different. Some are already a long way along the route of agreement, whilst others are stuck in disagreement and indecision. There’s a real tension locally here in Bristol about this issue. The Bristol city region has a bit of a history of lack of agreement despite regular attempts by local politicians from the across the patch and the business community to convince us that they work well together. Sure, some things work and agreement is sometimes possible when funding is attached to decisions. But even then you kind of get the feeling it’s all done rather reluctantly and the antagonism between leaders, councils and politicians is barely hidden beneath the surface.
Already we have seen Bristol, with its elected mayor, seek to form partnerships outside the city region, with Cardiff and Newport. Whilst to a point this makes sense, it is unlikely to replace the need for Bristol to work with BANES, South Glos and North Somerset. A combined authority for the Bristol city region is likely to be expected to form around the old Avon area. But is this ever going to be possible? At the moment I’m not sure I’d bet on it. Indeed, Bristol barely figures in any of the current government discussions on devolution, because it’s not a priority. A blog in March by Ben Harrison at the Centre for Cities explained some of the reasons for this – How Bristol can claw its way back on the devolution agenda. So what is holding things back in Bristol? Is it local political arguments or is it down to government priorities?
Firstly, if at least part of the debate about devolution is focused on regenerating areas then Bristol is hardly likely to feature as a government priority. It’s a relatively prosperous area with a resilient local economy. It doesn’t have the same structural problems that need to be addressed, so government is more likely to look elsewhere.
Secondly, the city region hardly has a track record of positive cooperation. It has flatly refused the idea of setting up local structures, such as an ITA, to tackle transport problems. It has resisted formal legal structures for its LEP and has largely shied away from the notion of the city region as a formal entity. Bristol is looked upon in less than positive terms by all the main parties in Westminster. The election of a mayor has made some difference and certainly there is more of a dialogue now with national politicians and civil servants than ever before, but still the city lags behind and is hamstrung by local boundaries and local politics.
One of the questions that arises from this is can and should the Bristol city region try and overcome its internal difficulties and go along with this central agenda? Is it worth it? Is it something people want locally? And therein lies part of the problem. I would argue that no local politician can possibly have a mandate to take a decision on whether or not there is a combined authority and a metro mayor for the city region. It was barely acknowledged as part of the local debate during the elections. Politicians from different parties and different councils have said different things, but there has hardly been a sensible debate about it locally. So how can politicians decide?
The question about whether the imposed model would work here or whether something different is needed seems sensible but is clearly not an option. So the only debate seems to be whether or not Bristol (the city region) wants to play with the other big cities and compete with them on the same terms. If so it might well have to accept a formal structure devised by central government and swallow some of those local antipathies that currently form the basis of reluctant informal arrangements. Either way, a local debate about the issues, where some of the politics is put to one side, would make a refreshing change.