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Devolving power to cities

Dan Drillsma-Milgrom
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Last week this column was doubtful as to whether the government would make good on vague promises to devolve power to cities. Last Thursday’s announcement by Nick Clegg and Greg Clark has clearly taken things on a bit.

Last week this column was doubtful as to whether the government would make good on vague promises to devolve power to cities. Last Thursday’s announcement by Nick Clegg and Greg Clark has clearly taken things on a bit.

What is being proposed now is on an altogether bigger scale

The ‘city deals’ prospectus contains a clear list of some genuinely significant powers that may be on offer. It essentially looks as if the government is proposing to repeat the process of negotiations that took place at the end of the last administration to set up statutory city regions. But what is being proposed now is on an altogether bigger scale. Last time it was Greater Manchester and Leeds that the government chose to deal with, and only the former made any progress.

Now, the plan is to hold discussions with all eight regional cities. This is a huge task. It asks an incredible amount, both of the cities and the Whitehall departments coming to the table.

Last time, Greater Manchester made progress because it had its geography sorted and because it had conducted the Manchester Independent Economic Review. This substantial piece of research gave the city a clear agenda of what powers it wanted, what it would do with them, and what outcomes it expected to achieve. It is extremely unlikely that all the other cities have their ducks so well arranged.

From the other side, the negotiations required extremely skilful handling by Treasury officials, including a keen awareness of what departments’ ‘red lines’ were and how to keep them off the agenda.

The whole process was described to me by someone intimately involved as “a process of easing, of extruding, little bits of power out of Whitehall”. The eight regional cities should not assume that last week’s announcement means there is now some kind of pan-Whitehall consensus that cities should be made responsible for their economies.

The potentially crucial difference is that the statutory city region talks took place at the fag-end of a dying administration. This time, there is a clear run of three-and-a-half years until the next general election. The announcement has the backing of the deputy prime minister. He will be sorely tested.

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