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 Guest speakers focused on a number of key issues:
- 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.
There were a number of key themes that emerged from the subsequent discussion, and indeed there were some unanswered questions remaining 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. It will be important to manage potential conflicts between national infrastructure needs and local politics. It was clear that greater co-operation between Government departments would benefit the devolution process. Some attendees expressed concern that local politics could disrupt national infrastructure provision, however, it was agreed that devolving power can result in better decision-making – we need to improve democratic accountability at a local level. 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.