Local authorities are stronger together than apart

With the local elections coming up, its worth remembering that co-operation is key to development.

Cities across the country have responded to the wanted ad issued in the Localism Act. Politics outside Westminster suddenly looks very interesting. The impending referendums on elected mayors have grabbed the imagination and the headlines, but there is a quiet revolution in local governance that has been less commented upon.

Developments in the Leeds City Region remind us that championing localities is about collaboration as well as leadership. Leeds and its neighbour’s intention to follow Greater Manchester in establishing a combined authority shows that collaboration across functional economic areas is a growing phenomenon. The future story of local government will be as much about newly combined authorities as newly elected mayors.

Local champions can drive local economic growth. The areas in and around cities such as Leeds or Manchester, have vibrant economies – and what they often need most is internal and international connectivity. This description would equally apply to areas like Tyne and Wear or the Birmingham conurbation. If England’s cities and shires are going to fulfill their potential then creative approaches to investment are required. Mayors alone will not be able to provide this.

A good example of local investment to support business is provided by Northamptonshire County Council. The council made a £10 million secured loan to protect the future of the British Grandprix at Silverstone Circuits. It also made a £1.5 million contribution to a new high-tech business park to develop automotive innovations. The new technology park is expected to create 2,400 jobs and the loan could help protect 22,000 jobs in Silverstone and across the rest of the country.

Analysis in NLGN’s latest report – Grow Your Own: Skills and infrastructure for local economic growth – found that this investment can be scaled if councils are willing to pool their capital funding and borrowing capacity. The ten Greater Manchester authorities recently agreed a £1.5 billion revolving investment fund for major transport infrastructure. A single economic strategy gave the councils the confidence to allocate their own money and borrow substantial amounts to invest in a wide ranging programme of which extensions to the Metrolink are a centre piece. Joint borrowing helped to mitigate the risks that the councils faced in underwriting new investment.

The Leeds City Region wants to develop its own model for investment and is working with government in order to achieve this through the City Deal process. Leeds hopes that Whitehall will match fund £200 million worth of pooled investment cash. The money would be spent on new infrastructure to connect the sub-region’s economy. One way to encourage others to take up this approach would be to extend city deals beyond the core cities through a series of LEP deals.

Policy innovation is particularly important given the £4.9 billion spending gap inherited by local government and Local Enterprise Partnerships following the abolition of the Regional Development Agencies. The ability to pool investment is also the reason that combined authorities could have more clout than mayors in single authorities.

City mayors are often presented as business-friendly "one-stop-shops", providing clear points of contact for prospective investors. This potential will be limited unless they operate through the kind of collaborative local governance that is envisaged for the Leeds city-region.

In Birmingham there is much excitement over the potential of a mayoral race between Siôn Simon, Gisela Stuart and Liam Byrne. But their capacity to drive change will be undermined unless the city and its surrounding area cooperate. Currently the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP is struggling to agree on shared economic priorities with the neighbouring Black Country LEP. This makes no sense to a major multinational company making a major capital investment, such as Jaguar Land Rover looking to build a new automotive factory.

The government ducked the opportunity to support metro-mayors. Admittedly, the local politics of such a role could have proved one step too far for local cooperation. However, if mayors make narrow investment decisions based on authority boundaries they will exacerbate existing problems.

Elected mayors can be important figureheads for communities. They can also champion major investment projects, such as Crossrail, and help to attract future business investment. But local growth is equally dependent on local government. Combined authorities investing smartly – in everything from skills to infrastructure – may hold the keys to unlocking local economies.

A woman walks past Manchester City Town Hall. Photograph: Getty

Joe is a senior researcher at the New Local Government Network

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.