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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Northern Ireland election results: a shift beneath the status quo

The power of the largest parties has been maintained, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

After a long day of counting and tinkering with the region’s complex PR vote transfer sytem, Northern Irish election results are slowly starting to trickle in. Overall, the status quo of the largest parties has been maintained with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party returning as the largest nationalist and unionist party respectively. However, beyond the immediate scope of the biggest parties, interesting changes are taking place. The two smaller nationalist and unionist parties appear to be losing support, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

The most significant win of the night so far has been Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit who topped polls in the Republican heartland of West Belfast. Traditionally a Sinn Fein safe constituency and a former seat of party leader Gerry Adams, Carroll has won hearts at a local level after years of community work and anti-austerity activism. A second People Before Profit candidate Eamon McCann also holds a strong chance of winning a seat in Foyle. The hard-left party’s passionate defence of public services and anti-austerity politics have held sway with working class families in the Republican constituencies which both feature high unemployment levels and which are increasingly finding Republicanism’s focus on the constitutional question limiting in strained economic times.

The Green party is another smaller party which is slowly edging further into the mainstream. As one of the only pro-choice parties at Stormont which advocates for abortion to be legalised on a level with Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, the party has found itself thrust into the spotlight in recent months following the prosecution of a number of women on abortion related offences.

The mixed-religion, cross-community Alliance party has experienced mixed results. Although it looks set to increase its result overall, one of the best known faces of the party, party leader David Ford, faces the real possibility of losing his seat in South Antrim following a poor performance as Justice Minister. Naomi Long, who sensationally beat First Minister Peter Robinson to take his East Belfast seat at the 2011 Westminster election before losing it again to a pan-unionist candidate, has been elected as Stormont MLA for the same constituency. Following her competent performance as MP and efforts to reach out to both Protestant and Catholic voters, she has been seen by many as a rising star in the party and could now represent a more appealing leader to Ford.

As these smaller parties slowly gain a foothold in Northern Ireland’s long-established and stagnant political landscape, it appears to be the smaller two nationalist and unionist parties which are losing out to them. The moderate nationalist party the SDLP risks losing previously safe seats such as well-known former minister Alex Attwood’s West Belfast seat. The party’s traditional, conservative values such as upholding the abortion ban and failing to embrace the campaign for same-sex marriage has alienated younger voters who instead may be drawn to Alliance, the Greens or People Before Profit. Local commentators have speculate that the party may fail to get enough support to qualify for a minister at the executive table.

The UUP are in a similar position on the unionist side of the spectrum. While popular with older voters, they lack the charismatic force of the DUP and progressive policies of the newer parties. Over the course of the last parliament, the party has aired the possibility of forming an official opposition rather than propping up the mandatory power-sharing coalition set out by the peace process. A few months ago, legislation will finally past to allow such an opposition to form. The UUP would not commit to saying whether they are planning on being the first party to take up that position. However, lacklustre election results may increase the appeal. As the SDLP suffers similar circumstances, they might well also see themselves attracted to the role and form a Stormont’s first official opposition together as a way of regaining relevance and esteem in a system where smaller parties are increasingly jostling for space.