Over the past year we have seen a ‘race to the top’ on cities policy, with each of the main parties vying for the most compelling proposition regarding pushing power down to localities, and boosting economic growth across the country.
Now that each of the party manifestos has been published, it’s a good time to review and compare the approaches that the major parties have committed to adopting in the next parliament.
For their part, the Conservatives would continue their focus on large city regions, promising to deliver on the Greater Manchester devolution agreement, and offer significant policy powers and funding in areas such as strategic planning, transport and health, but only where those places commit to introduce improved city region governance and a metro mayor for the conurbation.
And, as trailed by George Osborne’s announcements on the ‘northern powerhouse’, they would also invest £13bn in funding for transport in the north. In this sense, their manifesto broadly signals a continuation of their recent policy agenda on cities and devolution, which could spell good news for certain parts of the country, but may leave others wondering how they will stand to benefit in the years to come.
By contrast, the Labour manifesto emphasises a more universal approach to pushing power down from central government. Their headline proposition is to significantly expand and improve the current local growth fund approach to devolved funding, boosting the amount of money involved to £30bn, and enshrining a new settlement between central government and city and county regions through a Devolution Act.
The risk with this approach, as we have seen during the previous parliament, is that the potential of these deals could be diluted by the difficulty of agreeing them with so many places at the same time, given the resource and capacity constraints that exist nationally and locally.
In some senses, the Liberal Democrat manifesto attempts to strike a balance between the Conservative and Labour approaches. They commit to building on the city deals and growth deals of the past government too, but underpinned by a new ’devolution on demand’ approach – a suite of powers available to all but awarded on the basis of capacity and demand from local areas.
The focus of their manifesto may be the least explicitly urban in focus of the three but it is also the most ambitious when it comes to exploring fiscal and financial reforms that would give places the tools and incentives they need to drive growth. However, it remains to be seen whether Liberal Democrats in a coalition government would be able or prepared to push these more ambitious proposals on local government finance through.
With neither the Conservative or Labour party likely to secure an overall majority, the fate of the cities and devolution agenda in the next government will be determined by whatever complex political arithmetic we are presented with post 7 May – which raises interesting questions regarding what we are likely to see.
In the event that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have sufficient seats to govern again, could the Liberal Democrats be able to push for more financial reform and fiscal devolution to major city regions that accept metro mayors?
If we end up with a Labour-led government, will the presence of a larger contingent of SNP MPs result in prime minister Miliband prioritising city devolution as an answer to the “English (and Scottish) question”? Or will the political and constitutional uncertainty of such a finely balanced parliament make delivering progress on the agenda simply too difficult, potentially putting at risk even the hard-won gains of the Greater Manchester deal?
The greater prominence of cities and devolution in the 2015 manifestos is welcome, but ultimately only time will tell whether there will be enough political momentum to keep the issue at the top of the agenda into the next parliament.
Ben Harrison, director for partnerships, Centre for Cities