Cllr David Burbage MBE is Leader of the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, and Chairman of South East Strategic Leaders.
This government is rightly committed to a ‘control shift’ from Whitehall to local markets and communities so that civic initiative, public service reform and local growth can be unlocked.
The process began with Greg Clark’s brilliant brokering of City Deals as a Minister in the Coalition, and is set to take a step-change with the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s powerful support for decentralisation to Manchester and other large cities. But for a ‘One Nation Powerhouse’ to be unlocked the government needs to create the right conditions across the whole country.
It especially needs to commit to sharing any freedoms and powers with the English – in the South, and anywhere – towns and counties that it offers to the Northern conurbations. Tweaking the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill now in the House of Lords provides a defining opportunity to do so.
The English South is the real powerhouse of a ‘One Nation’ economy. It generates more economic value than London, or all of the North’s great cities combined.
Hampshire’s economy alone is as significant as that of Wales – around £50 billion.
It is worth repeating that – Hampshire has an economic powerhouse as big as Wales, and that’s just one county area.
The South’s local authorities are no less ambitious than the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities. Indeed, they are very high-performing when it comes to client satisfaction, innovation and public service reform.
In a globally competitive marketplace they need the freedoms to be able to combine to make fresh investments in infrastructure, take new approaches to skills, and drive efficiency by pooling health and social care budgets. ‘Earn back’ deals such as in Manchester, where the Treasury shares part of the proceeds of increased growth with the areas where it has been generated, or the right to retain all (or a greater share) of business rates in partial emulation of the most creative approaches internationally, would add a particular incentive to such new collaborations. Many of us would and could go further still with alternative and locally flexible financing models.
The Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill as it presently stands is welcome but needs to go further: if the Isle of Wight or any city or unitary authority wanted to choose mayoral leadership as a means of bringing together public bodies, to do more with less, it should be free to do so.
If the same areas can come forward with compelling offers to support productivity, growth and public service renewal then the choice of a mayoral leadership model ought not to be forced as the defining deal-breaking clause, although accountability concerns are valid and will always need clarity.
If well-led combinations of towns and counties, individual counties or unitary authorities can take a creative lead in health and social care delivery, unlocking under-used NHS or MoD property assets, the enhancement of Clinical Commissioning Groups or in tackling unemployment, then they should have the clear opportunity do so. And the Secretary of State ought to be granted the powers to push this further still when foreign investment, significant infrastructure improvements and export industries are at stake. The South’s leaders are ready to go as far as Manchester – and do better still.
Our key ask is that the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill should clearly state and create the freedom and opportunity for authorities or combinations of authorities in the South to have access to all of the powers that have been, or may be, made available to any other cities and regions. The priority in these ambitious new arrangements should be what works, what makes sense on the ground from locality to locality, not what looks the neatest on the Whitehall drawing board.
We need the freedom to continue being and becoming an even stronger ‘One Nation Powerhouse’ and to unlock further potential through our own Devolution Deals. Sensible evolution of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill in the Lords can put this on the table as a ‘control shift’ available to all.
This represents a golden opportunity for Britain and the English – South and North, East and West – across the land.