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Public must be included in the city devolution debate

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The City Growth Commission represents the latest in a long line of reports which make a compelling case for city-led devolution in the UK.

The report is different in that it doesn’t see devolution as the end in itself, but as a necessary (although not sufficient) condition for growth.

The report also benefits from its publication after the Scottish referendum and the prime minister’s subsequent announcement that English devolution must take place “in tandem with” that to Scotland.

Sidestepping the ‘English votes for English laws’ preoccupations of the Westminster bubble, the commission makes some very sensible and practical proposals about how proper English devolution (downwards) could take place, beginning early next year.

We don’t want the imbalances between London and the rest recreated around Manchester. City devolution must unleash more progressive and fair local economies than we see in the capital

Not all ends are so neatly tied, though. One consistent failing of the core cities lobby remains its inability to appear in any way concerned about devolution beyond city limits.

It has developed a broad consensus around the notion of asymmetrical, or multi-speed, devolution.

Those who are ready for greater powers should not be held back by the slower ships in the convoy. But this should not mean slower ships make no progress at all. While the cities hold significant growth potential, there is also evidence that some of the fastest-growing places in the past decade have been smaller towns and smaller cities with good links to their larger neighbours.

While we mustn’t hold up progress we don’t want the imbalances that currently exist between London and the rest (and within London itself) recreated in and around Greater Manchester or Leeds. City devolution must unleash more progressive and fair local economies than we see in the capital. Little in the commission’s report makes this case.

The other big unanswered question is how the general public is brought into such an important debate.

With politicians and the policy lobby all apparently singing from the same hymnsheet the process is most likely to be stifled by the lack of any public anticipation of English devolution.

In Scotland, the public has driven political vows to devolve. Now we have all the reports we need, it is time for English people to find their voice. Councils might be well placed to champion this cause.

Ed Cox, director,Institute for Public Research North

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