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The era of the city region

Emma Maier
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The deputy prime minister’s Youth Contract scheme is proof, if any were needed, that the government’s focus for localism rests squarely on cities

The deputy prime minister’s Youth Contract scheme is proof, if any were needed, that the government’s focus for localism rests squarely on cities.

After considerable frustration about working relations with the DWP, the decision is belated recognition of the important part that councils have to play

Across most of the country, charities and businesses are being invited to bid for contracts to get young people into work and training as part of the multi-million ‘payment-by-results’ scheme. In three city areas - Liverpool, Leeds-Bradford-Wakefield and Newcastle-Gateshead - councils will be responsible for allocating their own pots of money, as part of their city deals.

This is welcome news. After considerable frustration about working relations with the Department for Work & Pensions, and local government’s limited role in the work programme, the decision is belated recognition of the important part that councils have to play. But the arguments also ring true in other cities - and in rural areas - which will not benefit.

Nick Clegg stated in no uncertain terms that the government believes that cities are the engines of economic growth. But with devolution increasingly being reserved for cities, what does this mean for the localism agenda?

After the election, councils questioned whether the coalition partners would be as localist in power as they were in opposition. Eyebrows were raised when Eric Pickles championed ‘guided localism’. Now it appears the government is moving towards ‘selective guided localism’, where a favoured few benefit from decentralisation.

Liverpool struck the first city deal, in doing so securing freedoms and possible additional funds. The Liverpool proposals make frequent reference to the post of elected mayor, but both Liverpool City Council and Nick Clegg insisted the deal was not dependent on the city having a mayor. Evidence to the contrary would be a concern for localists.

The Youth Contract scheme also highlights the value of working at the regional or sub-national level. The government’s definition of localism centres on devolving power to the most local level possible. It has readily acknowledged that sometimes this will be councils, but it could be ‘neighbourhoods’ or wider functioning economic areas that encompass more than one council.

Councils outside the Youth Contract’s three city areas are able to bid for funding as part of consortia (though it is not clear if they could bid as sole providers as with the scrapped Future Jobs Fund). This reflects the needs for councils to collaborate across a local economic area, mirroring ‘travel to work areas’.

With the regional infrastructure removed, it will be down to individual councils to collaborate. With this in mind, it is a shame that calls to investigate incentives to encourage councils to pool business rates were rejected by the Department for Communities & Local Government.

The era of localism is giving way to the era of the city region, which will benefit some but disadvantage others. No wonder that no fewer than 25 towns have applied for Diamond Jubilee city status.

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