Will the spending round crush urban growth?

Alexandra Jones welcomes funding for skills, but worries that grants to pay for councils and growth have been wiped out.

Everyone knew there would be very little money to spare in Wednesday’s spending round and Thursday’s "growth statement". The economy’s poor performance has put paid to any attempts to move away from "austerity" government, so departmental cuts of up to 10 per cent came as no surprise. Yet the big question for me was whether the Review – which, it’s worth remembering, doesn’t even get put into practice until 2015 – would start to signal an alternation in the balance of power, away from most decisions being taken centrally about how money is spent and towards more local decision- about how best to deliver jobs, growth and better public services for much less money. So did it happen?

The honest, if unexciting, answer is that it’s a mixed picture – the rhetoric is going in the right direction but Government still lacks a "place" focus in its approach to national policy, and many of the the decisions about devolution were fairly timid, with too much emphasis on central government control rather than local autonomy.

Take Heseltine’s Single Local Growth Fund. Heseltine suggested it could be as much as £49bn over four years; it ended up being £2bn a year for five years. While it’s good news that a direction of travel has been established, creating some degree of certainty for local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) wishing to make investment decisions, £2bn is hardly a ringing endorsement for devolution to local areas. Digging beneath the detail, much of the money is not new – about £700m has already been allocated to local areas for transport or the New Homes Bonus – and when you divide it between 39 LEPs, it's not a great deal of money, roughly the same as the nine Regional Development Agencies had in the mid 2000s. 

It is good to see skills money in there, however, and now it’s been created it will be difficult to put the localism genie back in the bottle – provided local areas deliver. The challenge for Whitehall as it finalises guidance about how the money will be allocated is to ensure that, even if the amounts are smaller than I had hoped, there is devolution of decision-making and that access to the funds do not involve local areas jumping through a lot of Whitehall-devised hoops.

It’s also unclear whether the welcome announcements on affordable housing, super-fast broadband and transport will respond to the needs of different places. The £3bn of capital investment to build 165,000 affordable homes, along with the £250m announced for more super-fast broadband are welcome and will make a difference in cities across the country, as will the vast number of inter- and intra-city transport schemes that were announced. My concern is that as we move from policy announcements to prioritisation and implementation, the significance of the differences between places will be missed by Whitehall departments. 

Finally, it was not a surprise that local government has again been hit hard by cuts, receiving a 10 per cent cut that Stephanie Flanders of the BBC suggested would amount to a 35 per cent cut in real terms for local government since 2010 (although the Chancellor argued that other measures meant that the "true" cut for local government would be 2 per cent in 2015/16). Combined with cuts in welfare, which will affect some city economies significantly, it will be very tough for many cities to manage their budgets giving rising demands for their services. 

To help them manage cuts more effectively, more action is needed on innovative measures that increase local autonomy. It was good to see confirmation of Manchester's Earn Back deal, involving Manchester keeping a proportion of the benefits generated by increasing local economic growth. It was also good to see additional money for Troubled Families, but I would have liked to see more steps taken down the road of "Community Budgets", allowing local areas to pool budgets across silos in order to deliver more effective, efficient local services in a way already demonstrated in pilot areas such as Manchester and Essex. 

So where does this leave us? I’m an optimist, so I still hope that as the detail emerges over the next few weeks and months this will show that government is putting "place" at the heart of its policy-making. In the meantime, in the two years before these announcements kick in, there’s still more to do to give greater freedom to cities with the capacity to deliver and provide greater support to those cities struggling with capacity, decline or both.

Alexandra Jones is the director of the Centre for Cities

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.