Cities policy has been transformed over the past 18 months, from city deals through community budgets to the Heseltine review.
But, as details start to emerge, the incentives to ‘tidy up’ all the initiatives into one local growth ‘super-policy’ are getting stronger. The big question in the run-up to 2015 is whether the principle of localism - differentiating policy according to local circumstances - will hold out against the pressure to have a one-size-fits-all approach to local growth.
It may seem churlish to be asking this now. After all, this government has genuinely devolved powers and funding, it has embraced Lord Heseltine’s proposals, and cities have the best opportunity in recent memory to secure the powers they need to make local decisions for growth.
Yet some of the biggest reforms this government has introduced - particularly around focusing on cities and differentiating policies according to local circumstances - may be in danger, before the agenda has had a chance to deliver.
It looks increasingly likely that community budgets, Heseltine, local growth deals and city deals will all be rolled into one. This has potential advantages: joining up policies, cutting across Whitehall silos, and maybe even ‘mainstreaming’ local growth.
But there are potential disadvantages. The focus on cities and their hinterlands as the areas most likely to drive economic growth was a powerful signal that not everywhere is the same. If city deals are rolled into the Heseltine agenda and the emphasis is on making sure everywhere has access to the same policies, will that focus be lost?
And will Whitehall revert to producing one-size-fits-all policies for all local areas? Anyone remotely connected to local government knows that solutions for Southampton are quite different from those for Sunderland, and that Manchester’s needs are not the same as those of Milton Keynes. Yet it is much easier to have one set of policies that everywhere accesses, even if that produces less than optimal results.
So what do we do? There are three issues that the Centre for Cities will be focusing on in the run-up to 2015.
First, we’ll be campaigning hard, as you would expect, to put cities at the heart of economic growth policies.
Second, we’ll be arguing that differentiation must be preserved. Everywhere, cities and rural areas alike, need the scope to adapt policies to local economic circumstances and, provided they can satisfy basic criteria, such as governance, they should be able to do this.
Third, we’ll be working with cities of all sizes to strengthen the evidence base about what kinds of policy could best support local economic growth in different places, from the core cities to medium-sized cities to smaller fast-growing places.
This remains an exciting time for cities and those who care about them. But if we are to keep the spirit of localism alive, our whole sector needs to ensure it is keeping the spotlight firmly trained on how the government is implementing its policies around localism and local growth.
Alexandra Jones, chief executive, Centre for Cities
Three key strategies at the core of the local government survival plan, analysis by Ruth Keeling
Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg announced in June 2011 that four areas would carry out in-depth whole place community pilots. The timing of this, soon after the demise of Total Place, did not bode well, but the work of the four pilots in Essex, Greater Manchester, West Cheshire and the West London tri-borough has been praised by everyone from the prime minister to the National Audit Office. This year’s Budget suggested they could save £800m in five years. A national rollout was announced shortly afterwards but the pilot areas complained they were still awaiting answers from Whitehall on their list of demands.
The first wave of city deals saw the eight ‘core cities’ enter negotiations for new powers and new funding in return for stronger governance. It was hoped this would rebalance a London-centric economy. Although the government’s dream of elected mayors in the cities came to nothing - or, more precisely, just two mayors - the deals were struck and the negotiations over further devolution of powers continue. A second wave of city deals involving 20 smaller cities, and in some cases their hinterlands, was launched in autumn 2012.
Local growth deals
Lord Heseltine published his review of regional economic growth policy, recommending the creation of a single pot of economic growth funding. The Treasury endorsed his autumn 2012 report and, by the time of this year’s Budget, his preferred competitive bidding process had mutated into single-pot-funded ‘local growth deals’ for every local enterprise partnership in the country. This approach has the potential to reassure those areas that are not cities and believe their economic potential is being overlooked by a city-obsessed government. Echoing the city deals process, the deals are dependent on strong governance - such as conurbation mayors - and involve iterative negotiations with Whitehall.