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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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.