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Following the stasis on devolution that set in in the wake of the EU referendum, recent weeks have brought a raft of announcements and pronouncements that suggest the agenda is, if not quite motoring ahead, at least benefiting from an oil change.
The outbreak of progress began a fortnight ago with the confirmation of London’s health devolution deal, agreement on which had originally been expected at the March Budget. Then at the beginning of last week the communities secretary revealed work was progressing on a “devolution framework” which he said would provide “clarity and consistency” to all involved in developing and negotiating deals.
Two days later the Budget brought confirmation of a second devolution deal for the West Midlands and the creation of a new metro-mayor and combined authority, the first since June 2016, north of the River Tyne.
Assuming the Sheffield City Region CA mayoral election goes ahead next year (as government is currently insisting on despite local opposition), there will be eight such mayors in post by the end of the decade, nine including London.
However, this is not enough for northern powerhouse minister Jake Berry who this week stated his ambition to install metro mayors and devolution deals “across the whole north” of England.
The Budget also made available £12m of ‘capacity funding’ for mayoral combined authorities over the next two years. While it may not sound a great deal, a couple of million quid will be a significant boost to most combined authorities’ budgets for day-to-day spending and signals government is getting behind these new bodies rather than allowing them to wither on the vine through a lack of engagement.
When you consider the prime minster’s position on taking office in July 2016 was to distance her government as much as possible from George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse project this is significant.
The Budget also provided £123m to support the Tees Valley CA in the redevelopment of the Redcar steelworks site while the mayoral combined authorities will also get the lion’s share of the £1.7bn transforming sities fund. In addition this week it was announced mayoral combined authorities will be put in charge of their place’s local industrial strategy, a role that will fall to local enterprise partnerships in other areas. Once again, you’ve got to be in it to win it.
So what happens next? Mr Berry highlighted Lancashire and Cheshire and Warrington as areas that should be seeking devolution, although Lancashire’s hopes have been dashed after four councils, including the county, pulled out of the process. “County Durham” also got a namecheck by the minister, although it’s not clear whether he was suggesting Durham CC go it alone or that politicians rethink their decision last year to pull out of a devolution deal for the whole of the North East CA, along with the other thre councils south of the Tyne.
Outside of the north, councils in the Solent devolution bid are hopeful of securing a deal next year. In his speech on the devolution framework last week, Sajid Javid more or less apologised to the area for the government’s failure to take a decision.
If government does approve the deal in its current form it would be the first not to cover a wholly joined up area: the two mainland councils in the bid - Portsmouth and Southampton city councils – are separated by the Hampshire districts of Fareham and Gosport which have been invited, along with Hampshire CC to become non-constituent members. The county council remains vehemently and actively opposed to the Solent deal.
While there is no geographical precedent for such an arrangement, both the North of Tyne deal and the intransigence on the Sheffield City Region mayoral election suggests a government now more focused on getting more mayoralties moving.
Whether that extends to engaging with the Greater Yorkshire proposals remains to be seen, but for areas struggling to reach agreement on devolution bids recent developments have provided some not insignificant carrots.
Sarah Calkin, deputy editor