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Cities must play the long game despite short devolution deal deadlines

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Striking deals is hard to do.

Local authorities across the country, up against the 4 September deadline, are working hard on agreeing how much they offer to local partners and to the government, and what they require in return. They are also deciding whether there are deal-breakers, both nationally and locally, which mean someone walks away.

There is no denying the challenges. In particular, many places continue to debate whether the powers on offer outweigh the difficulties of agreeing a metro mayor in big cities or shared governance in counties and smaller cities.

Yet there are significant opportunities associated with success, not just in the short term but also in the future.

This does not and cannot mean a deal at any price; the prizes on offer need to be sufficient to justify the changes, for both national and local government.

But the experiences of London and Greater Manchester suggest cities (and national government) should think hard before walking away from a not-as-good-as-hoped deal which could reap future dividends for both.

Since London introduced its mayor and the Greater London Assembly in 2000, the remit and powers of both have expanded considerably. The experience and capacity they have developed has also enabled them to take on new functions and funding as other organisations (such as the London Development Agency) have folded or been downsized.

Greater Manchester, too, has gained considerable new powers even since securing its devolution deal earlier this year. By 2017 it will enjoy powers over transport, housing, land, planning, police, fire, and children’s services. Imagine what it could have by 2025.

While both places gained additional powers from the outset, both have gained more since. Having strong, democratically accountable institutions at the right geographic scale is an advantage when national decisions are made about where and how funding and functions are allocated.

For now, the government’s offer of powers in exchange for reforms is the only one on the table. Refusal to countenance the changes they’re demanding, such as having a mayor, means no deal will be done.

Cities (and counties) must aim to get the best deal possible for their place in the weeks ahead. But, despite the short deadlines, they also need to play the long game. The places most likely to gain greater powers by 2025, such as fiscal devolution, are those which already have strong, directly accountable and experienced city-region governance in place.

This could be the beginning of a genuine shift in the balance of central-local power for some places. But stronger cities in 2025 may require cities and national government in 2015 to accept that the best deal should not be the enemy of the good-enough-for-now deal.

Alexandra Jones, chief executive, Centre for Cities



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