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Osborne's northern powerhouses are harder than expected to build

By: SA Mathieson
Published: Wednesday, December 3, 2014 - 16:10 GMT Jump to Comments

Chancellor George Osborne’s autumn statement shows that English devolution is harder than it looks – but a short delay may help in getting it right

For one of the metropolitan elite, chancellor George Osborne is pretty keen on the north of England. It helps that he is the MP for Tatton in Cheshire, but his enthusiasm for northern science, manufacturing and culture runs deep. There aren’t many Conservative cabinet members who would refer to Manchester’s Factory Records in a major speech to Parliament, as Mr Osborne did today in his autumn statement.

But despite a list of measures supporting what the chancellor calls “the northern powerhouse,” there were a couple of surprising omissions, which suppliers to local government as well as those working in it need to note.

In early November, following the ‘Devo Manc’ announcement of greater powers and funding for Greater Manchester, deputy prime minister and Sheffield MP Nick Clegg said that Mr Osborne would announce similar deals for city regions centred on Leeds and Sheffield by today. It didn’t happen, with the chancellor simply saying “my door is open to other cities who want to follow [Greater Manchester’s] cross-party lead”.

The sticking point appears to be elected city region mayors. The 10 councils of Greater Manchester, which never stopped working closely together following the abolition of Greater Manchester County Council in 1986, were willing to accept this in return for devolution.

Those involved in the combined authorities in West Yorkshire and Sheffield City Region (aka South Yorkshire) seem less willing to give way. It’s notable that both are made up of clusters of cities with their own identities, whereas Greater Manchester is a single conurbation.

“One arm of government, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is insisting on a metro mayor, while the deputy prime minister is stating that’s not necessary,” Bradford Council’s leader David Green told the Telegraph and Argus, just hours before the chancellor’s speech. “Discussions are still going on to try to secure a deal, but the councils in West Yorkshire are adamant that a mayor can’t be imposed.”

Given Mr Osborne’s conciliatory statement, it looks like Devo-Yorks will be delayed rather than cancelled. As Public Service Intelligence’s new report Devo-City details, there are devolution-ready groups of councils forming up across England, from the North East Combined Authority centred on Tyneside to Solent City on the south coast. Similar groups would be possible in Scotland and Wales, if their devolved governments allowed them.

A pause may allow the government to tackle one of the problems with its local devolution plans: how to finish what it has started. Much of England does not fit into neat conurbations or clusters, and even if each county council is offered devolved powers, this could, according to the Devo-City report, leave out 16 smaller ‘lost cities’ that are hard to fit into the devolution map, including Plymouth, Stoke-on-Trent and Leicester. It makes no sense for a devolution programme that started with big cities to leave out smaller ones.

All councils in England should be thinking about how to claim devolved powers, and with which partners – and then knock on Mr Osborne’s open door. The delay to Devo-Yorks provides a little breathing space, but with a general election in May proposals will be needed early in 2015 to have a chance of adoption in this Parliament.

Those who supply English local government will need to pay close attention as to how councils group together – not least because many such groups will be used for joint procurement, as well as claiming devolved powers and money. England’s municipal landscape is in flux; it’s important to know which powerhouses, northern or otherwise, are getting planning permission.

Devo-City: a short guide to Britain's devolving city regions in words and data is available now for £10, or free with a subscription to Council News Monitor

New powers for the district may not be part of Chancellor's plan (Bradford Telegraph & Argus)

16 English cities could be lost in the gaps of the devolution jigsaw (The Information Daily, December)

England embraces devo-metro but rest of UK stuck in nation mode (The Information Daily, November)

Devolution means new opportunities for public sector suppliers (The Information Daily, September)

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.

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