This week the RSA published “Unleashing Metro Growth: Final Recommendations of the City Growth Commission”. The report calls for the “reconfiguration of our political economy, with city regions at its heart”. It argues that we need a shift in decision-making powers from the centre to the metropolitan areas, with greater financial independence, and more influence in national decision making for cities. Metropolitan areas have a vital role economic role, contributing massively to UK growth, providing employment and crucial services for millions.
The decentralisation debate has stepped up a gear over the past few months, particularly since the Scottish referendum. Closer attention is paid to local democracy and there is a real sense of dissatisfaction with the top-down Westminster model of policy making. This is the latest in a wave of recent reports attempting to shift the locus of power away from London. Think tanks such as ResPublica and IPPR have made some broadly similar arguments in the past few months and the noises made by George Osbourne, Nick Clegg and Ed Milliband suggest that a consensus is forming around the need to decentralise power within the UK.
It is right and good that increasing the powers available to cities like Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and Bristol is occupying such a prominent role in the national discourse. Not before time there is serious consideration of alternative democratic arrangements, acceptance that the current model does not work in everyone’s favour, that complex problems are best solved locally, and that big, important decisions do not always have to take place in Westminster.
The RSA’s report contains a raft of innovative and interesting policy recommendations that would help to move significant powers away from Westminster. The report is also careful to note that the metropolitan areas it discusses do not exist in splendid isolation, but are intimately connected with surrounding non-metropolitan areas.
We should be wary of replacing one consensus with another, though. Engineering decentralisation from the top down is likely to reproduce many of the same problems and blockages that already exist because it tends to assume that there is one framework to solve all problems. Creating a “Cities” seat at the Cabinet table is a telling indication of where we might end up if the debate is always limited to the location of power, rather than the nature of power itself.
The Scottish independence question was always about more than economic growth. Equally, localism is more complex than that. It is about identity, social networks and giving people real power determine their future. We should not assume that everyone from the north of England identifies with an extensive Liv-Manc-Leeds-Sheff urban conurbation. Many living in counties and districts face serious challenges that should be addressed locally, with local control to target resources as effectively as possible. The County Councils Network recently pointed out that over 50% of the UK’s population live in counties, which account for 40% value added to the economy. Metro power centres are not necessarily the most relevant model for people in these areas. There is even a great deal of difference among those within the big cities. The Greater Manchester Combined Authority is so successful, arguably, because it allows for multiple and overlapping identities.
The UK is a social, political and economic patchwork, with huge regional variations. Decentralisation should take this into account, recognising that there are many solutions, not just one. It should be built from the bottom up, through collaborative engagement between citizens, the state and civil society. As Jonathan Carr-West argued recently, we have a real opportunity, following the Scottish referendum, to deliver a truly localist agenda by reinvigorating existing democratic structures across the country, investing real power in social networks and trust in civic relationships.
It is a huge step in the right direction that decentralisation is so prominent in the national debate. However, if we believe in these principles we should carry them through and empower communities at all levels and in all areas, accepting that this will look different in different places. We should be careful not to replace centralisation with metrocentralisation.
Unleashing Metro Growth: Final Recommendations of the City Growth Commission will be the subject of an upcoming LGiU Policy Briefing. These are available exclusively to LGiU members. Please get in touch if you would like to discuss membership, or a free trial.