As David Cameron roared off by jet to visit Barack Obama, Greg Clark will perhaps have have been trundling by train to see Joe Anderson in Liverpool – or any other municipal leader in one of England’s cities. In today’s Times (£), he reels off a list of those he spent almost a year visiting by means of the West Coast and East Coast main lines. Although he is now Universities Minister, our erstwhile columnist has kept the cities portfolio that he has quietly made his own.
It was Clark who drove through a mass of City Deals, whereby urban areas bid for powers and cash from Whitehall. George Osborne, whose Tatton seat is near Manchester, announced the creation of a directly-elected mayor for the city, but it was Clark’s work, attention to detail and networking which made the move possible. And it was Clark who brought his passion for devolution to that most centralising of departments, the Treasury. The Cities Minister is Mr Localism.
He tells the paper that his eye is now on treating counties as this Government has treated cities – in other words, allowing them to bid for more powers, too. “In time there will be big possibilities for counties and places outside the big cities,” he says. “If some of our counties and districts come together they have the potential to have greater powers, which can be exercised locally.”
Calls for such change have come loud and clear from this site. For example, David Hodge, the leader of Surrey County Council, has called for “strategic councils” to retain “revenues from business rates, access to tax increment financing and the power to vary local business rates”. His article was based on the County Councils Network’s Our Plan for Government. Our own ConservativeHome Manifesto calls for fiscal decentralisation.
Clark apparently has “yet to decide who should preside over rural districts or shire counties” – in other words, whether or not they will have their own equivalents of Boris Johnson in London. The Treasury will remain institutionally resistant to allowing councils to challenge its grip over raising revenue. Number 10 will be nervous about left-wing Labour councils sending business rates soaring. And the public indifference to Police Commissioners may slow further experimentation.
None the less, the City Minister’s conviction that this century can rival the one before last for municipal and local innovation, pride and capability is an admirable one. It is Cameron’s dash to the White House that commands coverage today. But the consequences of Clark’s self-effacing journeys through the cities and shires are more likely to endure.