With the forthcoming UK election only weeks away, one of the topics you are likely to hear a lot more discussion about is devolution in the UK to urban areas. It may not have the headline grabbing ability of immigration or a possible EU referendum, but it will have an important impact on the way our towns and cities across the country are governed.
Why should we worry about the governance of our cities?
Cities are the principal contributors to the UK economy and currently account for 58% of the jobs, 60% of the economy and 72% of highly skilled workers. This is likely to become more intense as the sectors that will drive the economic recovery – such as tech and professional services – are particularly likely to congregate in city centres.
City leaders regard devolution as important because it will allow them to control more of their own budgets and spending thus allowing them to make the appropriate decision for their city, rather than contend with various levels of bureaucracy in Whitehall. However, it is also linked to the ongoing cost cutting that will be imposed by whatever party is in power from May. Following the Comprehensive Spending Review, the Local Government Settlement will undoubtedly be cut, increasing the spending constraints on councils across the country.
UK cities have periodically had various forms of devolution over the past 100-150 years, but within the most recent incarnation it is Manchester leading the way. The ‘DevoManc’ deal will give the city the power to control its health, transport and infrastructure budget, the creation of a new ‘Metro Mayor’ and the right to recoup funds that are generated by growth.
However, the primary aspect to consider regarding the devolution process is that ‘one size will not fit all.’ The cities that have obtained an initial agreement (Manchester, Glasgow and Sheffield) are among the larger cities within the UK. Agreements will need to be tailored to the city or city regions as appropriate, highlighting the need for strong and stable civic leadership.
Consequently, how will devolution affect those smaller towns and cities?
In these situations, you are likely to see councils collaborating in order to gain advantages of economies of scale. For example, both Southampton and Portsmouth have proposed working together and the Mayor of Bristol, George Ferguson, has proposed a ‘Great Western Cities’ city region encompassing Bristol, Cardiff and the major beneficiary of such a proposal, Newport!
The opportunities presented by devolution will offer cities or city regions the ability to focus on local infrastructure and recognise those areas that need investment to generate economic growth.
Although an aspect to consider is that devolution may bring about more clear winners and losers. The more successful cities will benefit from a co-ordinated pro-business approach, encompassing the local council, business community and higher educational institutes. Those cities that can develop these integrated strategies and encourage economic growth via knowledge intensive sectors or clusters will be best placed to sustain long term success.