By Greg Clark MP, the Minister for Cities, and Cllr Matthew Colledge the Leader of Trafford Borough Council
Today sees the announcement of a series of groundbreaking deals between the Government and the eight largest English cities outside London – Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle, Nottingham, Bristol and Birmingham. It’s in the spirit of these agreements that the two of us – a central government minister and the Conservative leader of a Greater Manchester local authority – have to come together to explain the significance of the City Deals programme.
The historical rise of our great cities was characterised by bold municipal leadership – a proud tradition of independent, innovative and, above all, local decision-making. By contrast, the 20th century decline of our cities was a marked by a creeping tide of control by Westminster and Whitehall. The intrusion of a top-down bureaucracy was bad for the whole country, but especially bad for our cities – complex communities whose problems and opportunities can only be properly understood by the people who actually live there.
In more recent times, the architects of the centralised state came to understand that they had failed to build Jerusalem, which is why politicians started to talk about decentralisation. Unfortunately, that is mostly what it was – talk. When it came to the reality of relaxing its grip, the previous government spectacularly missed the point and dictated the terms of decentralisation, imposing so many conditions that the only way that communities could participate was by agreeing to what ministers would have made them do anyway.
2010 marked a turning point. The first priority for the new government was to sweep away the legal, regulatory and bureaucratic mechanisms through which the centre had onerously and expensively micro-managed local government. Then, about a year ago, a new phase began. A Minister for Cities was appointed to negotiate a series of deals with city leaders, where instead of the Government pre-determining which powers would or wouldn’t be devolved – the initiative would come from the other side of the table. Thus each deal is based on locally-determined priorities.
The City Deals programme is, of course, a two-way negotiation, with Government seeking sensible assurances – for instance, on co-operation among the neighbouring local authorities that many of our cities our divided between. However, instead of looking for any excuse to say no, the attitude is one of actively looking for every opportunity to say yes.
It is an approach that has rapidly borne fruit. The first City Deal was agreed with Liverpool in January and six months later deals are in place in all eight cities. It’s been very encouraging to see different local authorities, different political parties and different economic sectors coming together in each city, proposing transfers of power that in many cases go well beyond was originally thought possible. Equally encouraging, has been the clamour from other cities –and counties – to take part in the next wave of deals.
But what is actually in the deals that have been unveiled today? Well, there’s no easy way of summarising them because each is so closely tailored to the particular ambitions of each city. However, there are a number of common threads:
Firstly, resources and responsibilities that were previously controlled by Whitehall have, for the first time, been transferred to city control. Secondly, the emphasis is on promoting business-led economic growth –in particular, the creation of tens of thousands of new jobs and apprenticeships in the private sector. And, thirdly, the deals put in place mechanisms that give city authorities a direct financial stake in the local economic growth that they help to create the conditions for.
It is vital that our cities should see themselves as the authors of their own future prosperity. For too long, they were reduced to level of dependents on a centralised source of handouts. It is no wonder the politics of the left came to dominate the disempowered communities of urban Britain. By empowering initiative and incentivising enterprise we can in time change that culture. Let us look forward to a much brighter future in which dynamic Conservative authorities like Trafford are the norm, not the exception, in our great cities.