Follow the regional road, by Chris Leslie

2 Mar 06
City-regions offer a new take on local democracy, holding out the idea of governance that reflects the urban economic realities. But these will only work if the hinterland is also involved in decision-making

03 March 2006

City-regions offer a new take on local democracy, holding out the idea of governance that reflects the urban economic realities. But these will only work if the hinterland is also involved in decision-making

The Institute for Public Policy Research's call for both elected mayors in England's major cities and for city-regions around Birmingham and Manchester brings together what some among the local political classes view as quite separate issues.

Nevertheless, the New Local Government Network welcomes the further championing of this agenda. City-regions offer an exciting next step along the road to mature, empowered devolution and local government reform.

In the same way as London has benefited from clearer leadership and decision-making arrangements so a West Midlands or Greater Manchester city-region could mean governance modernised to reflect economic realities.

Ultimately, however, it is not for Whitehall or London-based think-tanks (ourselves included) to dictate how Greater Manchester, the West Midlands or indeed a 'Greater' Liverpool should move forward. The process must be shaped in part by the cultural identities of the areas themselves and, more importantly, by local expectations and demands.

Naturally, some conurbations will find the city-region concept difficult to swallow. Can one imagine Bradford and Wakefield handing over strategic responsibility to a 'Greater Leeds'?

Where the model does fit, however, it would bring scale and a more readily identifiable presence formed around real-life demographics, rather than the current administrative boundaries. Greater collaboration could mean component authorities in each city-region win billions of pounds of additional infrastructure investment, bolstering their competitive edge against counterparts across and beyond continental Europe.

All well and good, but what about regional co-ordination?

Some of the more radical advocates of the city-region model argue that it requires the functions of the regional development agencies to be dispersed to these new sub-regional entities.

Although there is a logic to that argument, particularly in the light of the successes of the Greater London Authority model, it misses the point that such functions are more about collaborative co-ordination than big budget direct delivery.

The real question should be: 'Would we be better co-ordinating these delivery agencies at a city-region rather than regional level?'

There is little evidence to suggest that such co-ordination would be vastly improved if left solely to sub-regional rather than regional bodies. Many RDAs have long recognised the existence of city-regions on their turf through the sub-regional partnerships and structures that have shaped their decision-making.

Still, when it comes to co-ordinating investment priorities for wider geographical areas, city-regions are only part of the solution.

What would the effects be on Blackburn, Burnley or Preston if Greater Manchester carved itself out of the North West Development Agency and went its own way? At the very least, city-region status should be given only with an explicit protocol and guarantee that the neighbouring hinterland is consulted and involved in major decisions.

Comparisons will naturally be drawn with the arrangements for Greater London's governance and development, but the drive and acceptance of this strongest of regional arrangements has largely been a function of consistent prosperity and growth.

The unquestionably dominant position of the capital city has ensured that development across the surrounding Southeast is almost always a by-product of London issues, be it the need for affordable housing, land for industrial development, or replenishing skills to replace the brain-drain to the city.

Is it likely that the hinterland surrounding other English city regions would be as tolerant of an increasingly dominant Manchester or Birmingham?

Of course, it is the usual paralysis of reformers to fret about smaller problems once the biggest has been overcome. But here it hasn't. Whitehall centralisation remains the core concern, and we should keep focused on this, while regarding lesser potential divisions within devolved regions as a second-order matter.

Step one must be to secure devolution, wherever possible, from SW1. If the administrative boundaries of the English regions need to be redrawn because, in some cases, a sub-regional perspective chimes in harmony with public opinion and identity, then so be it.

RDAs were designed to work consistently with local government, and there is no reason why they cannot also work with city-regional government.

Frontline delivery is a task best fitted to local government — even if in some circumstances this means larger unitary authorities for whole conurbations.

Embroidering strategic deals across England, however, is a job that requires a regionalist approach.

Chris Leslie is director of the New Local Government Network


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