ITC considers the implications of devolution to our cities
What are the transport implications of greater devolution to the English cities and regions?
The devolution of powers to our cities and city-regions is an issue that has been rising up the political agenda in recent months. Most European cities already enjoy greater powers than their counterparts in Britain, and have used these powers to improve their local transport networks. However, in England we have a range of different local government structures, such as the Greater London Authority Area, the Combined Authorities and other cities and County Councils. It will be important to identify whether a one-size-fits-all solution is desirable and how our cities and city-regions can best improve their transport infrastructure and competitiveness.
To debate this important topic the ITC hosted a Discussion Evening on 17th February 2015 chaired by ITC Chairman Simon Linnett. Almost 70 guests attended and the subject was introduced through presentations from a distinguished panel of experts comprising: Professor Tony Travers, Director of LSE London; Cllr Sian Reid, the former leader of Cambridge City Council; and Cllr Andrew Fender, Chairman of the Transport for Greater Manchester Committee.
The transport implications of greater devolution – key issues raised by the speakers:
- Professor Tony Travers explained how models of local government had changed, often prompted by developing transport networks. He observed how London governance had been influenced by the growth of suburban rail and bus networks. More recently, the establishment of the GLA and an elected Mayor had been accompanied by a transport organization (TfL) that was more powerful than any of its predecessors, with responsibility for roads, private hire licensing and river traffic, as well as mass transit. Professor Travers explained how the success of the London model had influenced developments in other cities, especially Manchester, which had recently established TfGM to oversee transport policy across the whole city-region. The development of political consensus on the merits of increased devolution in the last decade, and the creation of city deals, had encouraged more cities to bid for increased powers, including on transport, depending on local needs. Questions remained, he concluded, over how far financial powers would be devolved, although he noted that a minority Government after the 2015 election might find devolution one of the few areas where agreement can be reached.
- Cllr Sian Reid explored how moves towards devolution had worked in practice, using her local area of Cambridge. She noted that the UK was the most centralised country in Europe, but the city deal initiative had encouraged English local authorities to co-operate and set their own agendas for integrating the services they offered. This had resulted in a bewildering variety of different devolved arrangements tailored to the needs of each city-region (explained on the LGA website at local.gov.uk/devolution); however the relationship between centre and local she described as ‘parent-teenager’ with central Government still setting the criteria for spending. In Cambridge, Cllr Reid explained that transport had been a key driver of their city deal initiative, and this was the case in many places. She expressed a hope that political parties would compete to improve local government and allow cities to determine their own futures.
- Cllr Andrew Fender illustrated the principles behind successful devolution from the perspective of the Manchester city-region. He expressed a belief that local government was a powerful force for redevelopment and better placed than central government to serve social and economic needs. He noted that polling showed that the public trusted local government more than Westminster, and there was a preference for local issues such as transport to be remedied at a local level. Cllr Fender also argued that local government had to be effective at the appropriate spatial scale. In the national context, it was important that different forms of local government could operate according to local needs. Manchester, for example, where a clear city-region boundary existed, was well suited to powerful local authority control. He expressed a hope that the new devolution settlements would be more durable than past efforts.
Key themes raised in the discussion:
- Unanswered questions remain on devolving financial responsibilities. A warning was sounded that local authorities should be careful what they wished for, since devolution could entail greater responsibilities without additional finance. Some guests suggested that local revenue raising powers were required to ensure that local infrastructure was built, and others criticized the current situation where local authorities had to spend public money despite having limited responsibility or control over raising funds. A former minister observed that most local leaders believed that the problem was not so much the need for additional revenue, but rather greater authority over how they could spend existing funds. A transfer of revenue raising powers could therefore create better value than the current system. The most straightforward solution, he indicated, would be to integrate the allocation of local funds with the existing tax system, such as allocating a proportion of personal income tax collected through PAYE.
- It will be important to manage potential conflicts between national infrastructure needs and local politics. Some attendees expressed concern that local politics could disrupt national infrastructure provision, for example by causing congestion on the main routes to our Ports, or damage competition, as happened when the nationalisation of Cardiff airport by the Welsh Assembly affected the nearby privately run Bristol airport. Others noted that it would be important to create mechanisms for protecting national infrastructure, and initiatives (such as the proposed National Infrastructure Commission) were afoot to ensure that national networks were properly safeguarded. Some, however, suggested that local communities occasionally saw little benefit from national routes, and ought to be given a share of revenue raised from these.
- Greater co-operation between Government departments would benefit the devolution process. A number of experts called for a more coherent approach towards devolution across Government departments. One suggestion was for a devolution cabinet committee to be formed with representatives from the Treasury, the DfT and DCLG.
- Devolving power can result in better decision-making. Many guests noted that the UK was already one of the most centralised states in the world, and this had neither resulted in decisive action on infrastructure planning, nor reduced growing regional inequalities. It was observed that city residents were best placed to understand the need for transport infrastructure, and that research had shown economic growth could result from the co-operation and better-informed decision making that devolution could bring. TfL was praised as a city institution that had maintained infrastructure investment throughout a severe economic downturn.
- We need to improve democratic accountability at a local level. Several guests observed that democratic participation in local government was very low. Others countered that the rate of participation in national elections was falling at a faster rate than at a local level. Greater local powers, especially in relation to taxation, would probably encourage more interest. There were also concerns expressed about the need to ensure that cities were responsibly run, and calls for greater accountability to ensure that poor local leadership did not adversely affect cities.
- We should aim to avoid situations where cities are competing for the same jobs or building competing infrastructure. A warning was offered about the risk of cities competing for the same employment pool or unnecessarily replicating infrastructure. It would be important to ensure that each city-region understood its own strengths and specialisms, and worked in co-operation with other neighbouring authorities to develop complimentary initiatives. There was also some concern that smaller cities, like Shrewsbury, might be disadvantaged with fewer powers than the large city-regions.