Cities are, most countries know, the beating hearts of their economies. However, some of the UK's major urban areas are suffering from cardiac disease. Compared with their European counterparts, many UK cities are dragging their feet in terms of economic competitiveness. The problem is that they do not have enough freedoms from central control to be able to make decisions that foster growth and generate employment.
This has not gone unrecognised in Whitehall. As a result, the local government white paper, due to be published this autumn, is expected to recommend greater devolution of freedoms and powers to cities and their surrounding regions. What powers and whether they will go to regional or city regional governance, or some mixture of both, has yet to be revealed. But in preparation, the eight core cities have been working up plans that describe how they and their hinterlands will work across borders to better plan issues such as transport, housing and planning.
Sir Robert Kerslake, Sheffield City Council's chief executive, explains how the concept will work: 'At the regional level is a group of local authorities working with the regional development agency to deliver the economic spatial strategy. So the city region already exists in a sense and by that I mean the economic footprint such as the flow of goods, people, ideas and information.
'But at the city regional level, the economic spatial strategy is about transport and skills. City regions are about the real economy, in other words, because they work irrespective of administrative boundaries. After all, people still work, live and travel across boundaries.'
All nine councils from across Sheffield's city region, as well as Nottinghamshire County Council, have been meeting regularly with partnership bodies South Yorkshire Partnership and Alliance Sub-Regional Strategic Partnership, and consultant EKOS Consulting, to iron out their concept of the city region. They are looking at how it should shape up and what decisions should be taken at what levels.
Setting up the meetings was the easy bit; what has been more tricky is getting everyone to grasp the concept of the city region and what it will mean to them. This is because, prior to arranging the formal bi-monthly meetings, many of the leaders, chief executives and consultants knew very little about each other's work.
This has now been overcome, as one Sheffield city region insider reveals: 'Despite the fact we have not worked closely together before, we have already managed to identify common goals. Over time the city region will either be seen as something that does not add value or something that does, and if the latter is the case then the barriers will dissolve.'
The city region concept was prompted by the creation of the Northern Way, an initiative originated by deputy prime minister John Prescott to define priorities for closing the north/south divide. Sheffield's city region is in need of gilt-edged economic improvements if it is to emerge from the waves of industrial decline the area has experienced over the past 30 years.
'We need to increase the economic well-being of the people who live in our city region,' says Sir Robert. He believes the concept offers 'huge potential through working collaboratively for economic revival. We also have strong historic arrangements, that with the changing economy are becoming unfit for purpose and we have limited links, particularly with north Derbyshire. So we have to establish more clear-cut arrangements between us to reflect the true nature of the economy.'
He explains that on key issues, including transport and housing, there has been a weak strategy for cross-boundary working, which is central to boosting economic performance. Systems such as local area agreements already exist across counties and districts, to bring together partners from a variety of fields, business and voluntary sectors, but they are small beer next to the city region. Furthermore, they are also not as complex as the city region model, which involves greater working across administrative boundaries.
Getting people to work together can be a challenge. Barnsley MBC chief executive Phil Coppard says some of the boundaries 'are not logical as they create a regional barrier and offer very little symmetry with the city regional structure'. Barnsley, for example, falls within the Leeds city region plan as well as Sheffield's.
'Economically, there's a growing feeling in Barnsley that there is more to gain from Leeds because of the power of its economy but it is difficult to gain lots from the partnership because of the administrative boundary issues,' adds Mr Coppard. But he maintains: 'Sheffield is an economic counterweight to Leeds but [the two city regions] are not designed to rival one another.'
However, the councils have worked to overcome these problems and are currently aligning their policy areas within the city region. This involves assessing what decisions will be taken at the city regional level and what will be left to councils to decide.
This is the stage Sheffield's city region has reached, having fine-tuned its final business case ready for Ruth Kelly's perusal last month (LGC, 21 September) (see box).
But with so many players and vested interests, the discussions for prioritising issues and strategies can become heated and political because of conflicting ideas on how to progress.
'We are getting to grips with policy alignment on issues like transport, housing, planning, higher skills and labour market management on the macro level and we will have to prove statistically that there is added value from working together,' explains Mr Coppard.
An added challenge will be over where to locate some of the main facilities for the region, such as a planned skills academy. Will it be based in Sheffield or another area within the zone?
'Every single council will want the facilities to go in their area,' says Mr Coppard. 'We are fighting it out.'
Deciding what the final governance arrangements will be has also involved painstaking debate, not helped by Westminster's push - in the face of local government opposition - for each region to have an elected mayor. But economic and political issues do not always marry up, Sir Robert says.
'This agenda is predominantly economic,' he explains. 'It is not about governance or changing boundaries. For local bodies, such as police or the fire service, it would be too much if we tore up maps and started again.
'This is not a big bang process and it is not about putting all this money into creating new tiers or structures. It should develop in an organic way.'
The region is, all the same, already thinking about developing new governance arrangements.
One idea being floated is to create a broker, someone who is independent with the whole city region's interests at heart and no bias towards one particular town or city. This could be the head of a small team or an unelected head or mayor. The question is how senior this person should be and what powers they should wield.
Sheffield's city region is confident that the local government white paper will include at least one component giving guidance on how city regions should be led.
However, Sir Robert cautions: 'Whatever people's views about a mayor, I think there would be significant issues created by having an elected mayor and there's no appetite for that type of governance here.
'The real issue is not about what the city region is or is not about. The challenge will be to overcome the feeling that the city [of Sheffield] is going to take over. But this is about all the areas in the city region being successful in their own way and not just about the city.'
After the first submission of its business case to Ruth Kelly, the city region plan returned from civil servant's hands asking for more detail on a number of issues including greater clarity on what the city region would achieve and any barriers to its success.
Sheffield and its partners are responding to these concerns, but are assured they are on the right path to success given they have established a fundamental common target - greater prosperity.
Sir Robert retains an air of confidence that the city region can pull it off.
'Sheffield is unique,' he says.'And in my view what makes us unique is our strong run of improvement and if we get the response to these recommendations right then there's a real chance for us to grow.'
In the city
What decisions are to be taken at the city regional level and what will be left to councils to decide?
City regional level
>> Spatial planning
>> Housing numbers
>> Higher level skills
>> Enterprise processes
>> Climate for business
>> Availability for risk capital
>> IT and broadband issues where cities need a bigger market than they currently have
>> Schools - the overarching need for improving standards will never become regional
>> Neighbourhood issues
>> Street cleaning
>> Refuse collection