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We must avoid a devo mess

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I’m getting on, so can remember the late 1980s when Mrs Thatcher’s government published Action for Cities, the Iron Lady’s one contribution to the urban policy debate.

The poll tax experiment was on its way, Labour councils were in revolt against rate capping and the business rate had been taken away from local authorities because too many of them were ‘irresponsible’.

Action for Cities contained not a single mention of local government. A job needed doing to regenerate large swathes of the nation’s cities, it said, and national government was going to roll up its collective sleeves and get on with it, with a little help from civil servants and its friends in the private sector.

A quarter of a century later, countless ‘special’ urban programmes and one failed experiment with English ‘regionalism’ later, it seems this chapter of overweening centralisation may finally be drawing to a close.

Unleashing Metro Growth makes a compelling case for the devo max promised to Scotland to be matched by devo met for the key cities outside London

Following the narrow failure of the Scottish independence vote, we are all devolutionists now.

In England, this means we are looking to bold, empowered, municipal leaders - singular in London, plural everywhere else - to lead us to the promised land, armed with the tools they need to complete the job.

And the Damascene conversion doesn’t end there. The three political parties that have held power in the interim period have presided over consistent growth in disparities of income, wealth and life chances between the super-region centred on London and the rest of the country, and especially the north of England.

All three are now determined the north will rise again. Chancellor George Osborne says it must, and has announced steps on how he will help. Labour leader Ed Miliband agrees, and got Lord Adonis to write about it. Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg is on the stump, trying to gather ideas about how the resurrection of the north can be done better, quicker.

Margaret Thatcher one use only

Source: PA

Margaret Thatcher unveils Action for Cities

It’s remarkable stuff, given where we’ve come from, but is it real?

Well, it certainly is for economist Jim O’Neill, whose City Growth Commission produced its final report last month.

Unleashing Metro Growth makes a compelling case for the devo max promised to Scotland to be matched by devo met for the key cities, outside London, that are best placed to drive future economic growth.

In putting the need for a more productive and balanced national economy at the top of the list of reasons why greater devolution makes sense, the commission’s conclusions might just appeal to a sceptical public who yawn at talk of local government reorganisation, local enterprise partnerships, city-region mayors and the like.

And the commission, unusually, has a plan, a timetable and some ingenious ways of getting around the road blocks that might stand in the way.

I have just one quibble with Mr O’ Neill and others who see ‘fiscal devolution’ - local tax-raising, to you and me - as the key to enabling provincial city regions, especially in the north, to stand on their own two feet.

Two days before the Scottish independence vote, a panic-stricken triumvirate of national party political leaders guaranteed the Scottish electorate a continuing, higher share of public spending per head than any area of England.

London has enjoyed the same, vis-a-vis other English cities, for decades.

Without a fair settlement on public spending, our cities will struggle to stand on their own two feet. And if they can’t, devo met could still turn into devo mess.

Alan Harding, director, the Heseltine Institute for Public Policy and Practice, University of Liverpool

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