Give cities more power over their destiny

The new City Deals are a step in the right direction

Throughout July and August all eyes will be on London. Whether it is the unveiling of the Shard or the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, London is demanding the attention of the nation. It is therefore no surprise that last week’s announcement of new powers for England’s eight cities was met with little fanfare. Yet, these "City Deals" represent the most significant devolution of power from Whitehall in decades and are deserving of more attention. This is not just the summer of the capital; it is very much the summer of the cities.

England’s eight core cities and their surrounding areas are forecast to add £71bn to the economy over the next decade. But evidence suggests that they have the potential to achieve much more. That is why the City Deals, that include transport infrastructure funds, new investment for SMEs, and apprentice hubs to support NEETs, will play a crucial role in the nation’s future growth.

The first clear indication of a new relationship between central government and England’s cities was the creation of a Minister for Cities last year. Greg Clark was appointed to this role, with further support from Nick Clegg and ministers and officials in BIS, CLG and HMT. The Deals are the result of an almost year-long negotiation between Clark and his team in the Cabinet Office, Whitehall and the core cities.

Arguably of most significance are the new transport infrastructure funds. They have a combined value of over £5bn and should have significant impact on the ground. Transport has been the policy area that the Mayor of London has had most influence over; the congestion charge, tube upgrades, a bicycle hire scheme and even a cable car over the Thames, have been the result. Getting around the capital is now easier and the same could soon be true for England’s core city-regions.

Better connections will support economic growth. Leeds City Region, for example, hopes that its £1bn West Yorkshire "‘plus" Transport Fund will create a 2 per cent increase in the region’s economic output and 20,000 extra jobs. Strategic investment in new stations, roads and public transport networks could have a dramatic impact on the daily commute.

People’s daily lives and commutes do not reflect arbitrary council boundaries, so another positive to have emerged from the Deals has been councils which are increasingly willing to work together to make investments. Greater Manchester’s councils combined strategy for a new Metrolink is a demonstration of the benefits of this approach. Such collaborative governance arrangements will prevent the jam-spreading of funds that can harm local areas.

The next step for the core cities will be to ensure they deliver on the ground. There is more work for central government to do as well. Greg Clark has said that this is just round one of City Deals. 142 upper-tier councils don’t have a Deal. A devolution bill could package up some of the powers in the City Deals allowing all areas to invest for local growth.

Greg Clark, the minister in charge of City Deals. Photograph: Getty Images

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.