“The average civil servant thinks that cities only ever ask for one of three things in devolution deals: things they can already do, things that don’t make any difference, and things they bloody well can’t have.”
That’s an opening line I often use when speaking on devolution. There is more than a hint of truth in this observation borne from my years of experience with devolution-free devolution deals. Even Greater Manchester, now a poster-child for the government’s devolution agenda, was until recently a serial devolution failure. Despite endless negotiations of local public service agreements, local area agreements and a host of other agreements, there was no devolution.
The deals now in train, arising from George Osborne’s focus on devolution for the creation of the Northern Powerhouse, have changed that. From the outset of the negotiations led by Howard Bernstein, Manchester city council chief executive, and myself, it was clear that the Manchester deal, signed in November 2014, marked a departure: the Treasury actually wanted to give us some responsibility for key parts of policy in transport, skills, employment and business.
The deals signed with Sheffield, the North East and Teesside over the past few weeks confirm this devolutionary trend. More are expected soon. The process may be messy and rushed but perhaps that’s why we’re achieving devolution: the system hasn’t had time to get its retaliation in first. Whitehall departments simply haven’t had time to block the Treasury’s devolutionary intent. But in the finest of English traditions, the deals we see now are tentative and evolutionary. We need to build on this start by answering three key challenges.
First, we need to settle the scale of our national ambition for our cities. Massive government investment in the capital’s infrastructure, science and transport sustains the central importance of London in driving the whole UK economy. Never in modern times has the government been more rhetorically committed to the case for the other great cities, but we do not yet see the scale of investment outside London needed to turn it into reality.
Whitehall has other challenges too. As we await the outcome of the chancellor’s spending review on 25 November, the suspicion remains that government departments will propose the deepest cuts to the budgets they devolve. This could be particularly damaging on skills, which is the most vital investment in ensuring that the benefits of growth-creating investment flow through to people. So we need further Treasury backing if devolution is to enable us to find out whether or not Whitehall really does know best.
Second, cities themselves need to develop more ambitious proposals if they are to persuade the government that they can raise the growth rate. Some of these are proposals for investment within cities. Elsewhere, as in the One North and Midlands Connect transport agendas, the issue is how cities can work together to create critical mass. This is important: our cities are small and close together, so the more we can make them work as a system and where possible as a single labour market, the higher the growth and the returns from government investment. All need to concentrate on stimulating investment, trade and enabling people to benefit from growth.
Third, more cities need to rise to the challenge by making their city regions a big part of the day job for council leaders, chief executives and their teams. Devolution deals are a manifestation of ambition, organisation and commitment. There are few places that wouldn’t benefit from better capacity to create and deliver city and regional agendas.
Metro mayors and devolution deals, like the combined authorities that precede them, are not a panacea. They are merely staging posts in the process in the development of policy and services that reflect the fact that for most cities and services, including skills and transport, current local government boundaries are of limited relevance.
There’s a danger that this kind of metro working is seen as a fad: a reality necessary to secure devolution. Yet to succeed, metro working needs to be founded on solid ground with commitment, a clear strategy, a realistic understanding of the potential of the place and plans for putting it into action.
In responding to the opportunities of devolution deals, we should start by thinking about how we can unlock the potential that already lies within our cities. In the end it’s the cities and their ambitions that matter and devolution deals are but one means of helping to achieve them.
This article originally appeared on the Guardian’s Public Leaders Network.