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‘Dead’ devolution gets the kiss of life

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LGC’s essential daily briefing on today’s devolution developments.

The battle to be Britain’s second city has been hotly contested through the centuries, but the friendly rivalry between Birmingham and Manchester has certainly stepped up a notch in recent years.

When Greater Manchester shocked the sector by securing a historic devolution deal in the autumn of 2014, the region appeared to gain the upper hand and bragging rights. So much so that in an interview with the Guardian in February 2016, Trafford MBC chief executive Theresa Grant addressed the second city debate by joking: “We’ll let Birmingham and London argue that out.”

Shocked into action by Greater Manchester, about 12 months later leaders across the West Midlands managed to set aside inter-regional rivalries to secure their own devolution deal.

Since then the two city regions have been found competing to host the 2022 Commonwealth Games and relocate Channel 4 to their areas.

In an interview with LGC in June last year Martin Reeves, then interim chief executive of the West Midlands Combined Authority, said while Greater Manchester had “set the pace” on devolution, he thought there was an economic “beast being unleashed in the West Midlands”.

“There’s a confidence that is emerging,” said Mr Reeves.

That was just before the EU referendum, subsequent changes at the top of the Conservative party, and most recently the general election.

In the last year, communities secretary Sajid Javid has hardly flown the flag for devolution with any real conviction – building more housing has been, and continues to be, his number one priority.

Mayoral elections aside, the devolution agenda has stalled, or perhaps a more accurate assessment might’ve come from Local Government Association chair Lord Porter (Con) who said in February: “Devolution is dead.”

If devolution had died, then today business secretary Greg Clark – once portrayed by LGC as Superman – performed life-saving surgery and gave it the biggest kiss of life.

MPs broke up for summer holidays last week but Mr Clark clearly didn’t get the memo as he gave a speech at Birmingham University this morning where he declared the government would begin talks with the West Midlands over a second devolution deal “immediately”.

This announcement is significant in more ways than one.

For a start devolution is not dead.

Secondly, it marks a shift in the devolution dynamic – Greater Manchester had always been the go-to place for government.

Mr Reeves had warned Greater Manchester last year that “if there is something to catch up on then we’re doing that at pace but we are different”.

One difference of course is the political party each region’s mayor belongs to. While Greater Manchester’s Andy Burnham (Lab) has spent the last few days bemoaning the government’s decision to cut funding for rail schemes in the North while backing Crossrail 2 for London, Andy Street is looking forward to working with his Conservative counterparts in Westminster to secure a second devolution deal.

Perhaps that ‘coincidence’ shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise.

The other significant (and surprising) development is the way in which the announcement about the West Midlands’ second devolution deal was announced. Or more accurately, by whom.

LGC contacted DCLG after Mr Clark’s speech to ask if they were aware of what he’d said – devolution, after all, falls under Mr Javid’s remit. ‘Of course’, was the essence of an irritated response from the press office.

In fairness, the announcement came at an event about the industrial strategy but it is curious if Mr Javid - a man “absolutely dedicated” to the Midlands Engine – had given Mr Clark his approval only not to make the 16-mile journey from his constituency in Bromsgrove to Birmingham to bask in some of the glory of this good news story.

Devolution has lacked a champion in the last year, although LGC reported in November how Mr Clark had retained a strong interest in the policy as part of his industrial strategy remit.

The sector got a sense of that last week when Mr Clark, rumoured to have wanted to retain the communities secretary role when he was asked by Ms May to switch departments with Mr Javid, told councillors he wanted to give councils an “almost constitutional” role in delivering economic growth.

“The industrial strategy with me steering it is determined to have the importance of councils and local leadership absolutely at the heart of it,” said Mr Clark during a charm offensive speech.

So does today’s announcement spark a return to 2015’s summer of excitement which resulted in the government being overwhelmed with bids from across the country to create combined authorities and secure agreements?

Almost certainly not. The government remains preoccupied with Brexit and non-committal to non-metropolitan devolution.

But there is a glimmer of hope that there might just be a way to secure devolution through the industrial strategy. Remember Mr Clark backed a Localis report in March which identified strategic bodies (defined as mayoral combined authorities, county councils which draw up agreements with districts, and elected assemblies chaired by a member who commands a majority) as taking on devolved powers aimed in particular at reviving the economies of smaller towns.

Devolution is dead! Long live devolution!

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