How will the government's "city deals" work?

A tale of eight cities.

The Government’s announcement about "City Deals" has thrown open debate about the balance of power between central, regional and local government. Nick Clegg and Greg Clark have signalled that these "ground breaking deals represent a dramatic power shift, freeing cities from Whitehall control". 

The Coalition has set out a challenge for eight of England’s cities – if they can deliver more effective and accountable local government, then central government will transfer more powers and provide incentives for cities to apply their own solutions. Cities are keen to be in control of their own growth agendas and these deals represent the government’s biggest commitment yet to fulfilling its localism policy.

The proposals put forward by the eight cities show interesting differences in definition and priority. Alongside the areas you’d expect cities to focus on, such as housing and regeneration of specific districts, several cities propose focusing on areas such as physical and virtual connectivity, with powers on transport and superfast broadband. Birmingham has identified life sciences as a potential and exciting growth opportunity. 

The role of the private sector also varies from city to city. For example, Birmingham’s Local Education Partnership (LEP) looks set to play a significant role. In Liverpool, the city has looked at the transition from Council leader to mayor and how this can effectively engage the private sector. There are a number of major corporate players involved in the development of Liverpool’s future and, if successful, this could become a model for other locations. 

Each city has defined the geographical boundary between the city and surrounding region differently.  Manchester, Leeds and Bristol have taken the most regional strategies, with Greater Manchester in particular having the benefit of building on a number of years of collaborative working with different agencies and groups within the area.  Bristol’s deal also establishes "enterprise areas" outside the city boundaries and areas such as Bath, where full retention of business rate growth will apply. 

There is also considerable variation in how the low carbon agenda is incorporated. Six cities refer to it, with Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and Newcastle placing it prominently in their proposals.

These variations will help trial different models for devolving authority to regional, city and local authorities and it will be interesting to see how they progress. 

Despite the variations in approach, there are two factors which will shape the practical and commercial success of these schemes. For the City Deals policy to be transformative, the detailed powers transferred must be embedded in a robust governance framework, underpinned by access to sustainable finance for investment in projects.  These two key pillars are critical determinants of success or failure. 

As well as providing governance, the city authority should be a catalyst for change and provide for an effective working relationship between local and national government, business and communities. It needs to allow the clear space to be created where trust can be nurtured and the alignment of objectives achieved.

Delivery should be at arms' length from policy, so cities will need robust region-wide economic and financial assessment frameworks to appraise and prioritise projects.

Considering both governance and financing frameworks, Manchester's deal is particularly distinctive. Founded on the long-established governance framework of AGMA (Association of Greater Manchester Authorities) its 'earn-back model' aligns investment resources and economic development returns for reinvestment in strategic priorities. The model allows retention of additional business rates over and above that allowed by the forthcoming reform of local government finance, benefiting the city region to the tune of £30m per year. Not that substantial in isolation, but bigger ambitions underpin this and, used effectively as enabling finance, this could unlock substantially more private investment.

The "earn-back model" could offer a genuinely sustainable source of finance through which Greater Manchester is rewarded for good investment decisions made locally. Being region wide and non-sector specific, it is broader in scope and potential than those funding elements more narrowly defined and tied to specific spatial (enterprise zones) or economic policy areas such as skills or apprenticeships, and to that end it marks a more substantive devolution of powers and resource.

UK cities are at the beginning of the journey towards devolution and there is potential for significant change.  Could cities take a share of local collected corporation tax or secure powers to vary national policy in other areas of the public sector? This is an exciting opportunity, but to capitalise on it cities need to think, plan and govern differently and, for the long term, sustainability and flexibility needs to be built in at the outset.

Philip Woolley is a partner in Grant Thornton’s Government & Infrastructure Advisory team.

The city deals will

Philip Woolley is a partner in Grant Thornton’s Government & Infrastructure Advisory team.

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How the Conservatives lost the argument over austerity

After repeatedly missing their deficit targets, the Tories can no longer present spending cuts as essential.

“The age of irresponsibility is giving way to the age of austerity,” declared David Cameron at the Conservatives' 2009 spring conference. Fear of spending cuts helped deny his party a majority a year later, but by 2015 the Tories claimed vindication. By framing austerity as unavoidable, they had trapped Labour in a political no man's land. Though voters did not relish cuts, polling consistently showed that they regarded them as necessary.

But only two years later, it is the Conservatives who appear trapped. An austerity-weary electorate has deprived them of their majority and the argument for fiscal restraint is growing weaker by the day. If cuts are the supposed rule, then the £1bn gifted to the Democratic Unionist Party is the most glaring exception. Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, sought to justify this largesse as "investment" into "the infrastructure of Northern Ireland" from "which everybody will benefit" – a classic Keynesian argument. But this did not, he hastened to add, mean the end of austerity: "Austerity is never over until we clear the deficit."

Britain's deficit (which peaked at £153bn in 2009-10) was the original and pre-eminent justification for cuts. Unless borrowing was largely eliminated by 2015, George Osborne warned, Britain's public finances would become unsustainable. But as time has passed, this argument has become progressively weaker. The UK has cumulatively borrowed £200bn more than promised by Osborne, yet apocalypse has been averted. With its low borrowing costs, an independent currency and a lender of last resort (the Bank of England), the UK is able to tolerate consistent deficits (borrowing stood at £46.6bn in 2016-17).

In defiance of all this, Osborne vowed to achieve a budget surplus by 2019-20 (a goal achieved by the UK in just 12 years since 1948). The Tories made the target in the knowledge that promised tax cuts and spending increases would make it almost impossible to attain – but it was a political weapon with which to wound Labour.

Brexit, however, forced the Conservatives to disarm. Mindful of the economic instability to come, Philip Hammond postponed the surplus target to 2025 (15 years after Osborne's original goal). Britain's past and future borrowing levels mean the deficit has lost its political potency.

In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that voters are increasingly inclined to look for full-scale alternatives. Labour has remade itself as an unambiguously anti-austerity party and Britain's public realm is frayed from seven years of cuts: overburdened schools and hospitals, dilapidated infrastructure, potholed roads, uncollected bins.

Through a shift in rhetoric, Theresa May acknowledged voters' weariness with austerity but her policies did not match. Though the pace of cuts was slowed, signature measures such as the public sector pay cap and the freeze in working-age benefits endured. May's cold insistence to an underpaid nurse that there was no "magic money tree" exemplified the Tories' predicament.

In his recent Mansion House speech, Philip Hammond conceded that voters were impatient "after seven years of hard slog” but vowed to "make anew the case" for austerity. But other Tories believe they need to stop fighting a losing battle. The Conservatives' historic strength has been their adaptability. Depending on circumstance, they have been Europhile and Eurosceptic, statist and laissez-faire, isolationist and interventionist. If the Tories are to retain power, yet another metamorphosis may be needed: from austerity to stimulus.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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