Devolution ‘must not leave small industrial towns behind’

16 Jul 15

The government’s decision to prioritise devolution to big cities in England could lead to smaller urban areas being left behind, a report has warned.

An examination of the government’s devolution plans by the Industrial Communities Alliance, which is made up of 60 local authorities from industrial areas of England, Scotland and Wales, said “asymmetrical devolution” offered little to places such as Dover, Rotherham and Sunderland.

The group’s Growth Beyond the Big Cities report stated there was a danger that city combined authorities with devolved powers become better placed to secure government funding, at the expense of smaller places.

The report comes after Chancellor George Osborne confirmed in the Budget that Manchester, which has so far received the largest suite of devolved powers, would be given extra responsibilities, with deals also being negotiated with three other city regions.

However, the alliance warned that the government's current devolution plans created “the real possibility…that funding will go to the places able to shout loudest, not to those with the greatest need or those able to offer the greatest opportunities for successful economic development”.

“For the numerous towns of older industrial Britain, often beyond the city-regions that are in line for devolved powers, this is worrying,” it added.

Osborne’s insistence on the creation of directly-elected mayors of combined authorities in order for additional powers to be devolved also created a problem in parts of England that did not have the “functional economic geographies” to create these structures, according to the analysis.

As a result, this would mean that multi-speed, asymmetrical devolution would lead to “widening differences between places in terms of administrative freedoms”

Instead, the group called for a more inclusive agenda, with devolution to local government based on five principles, including application to all areas and a guarantee that local fiscal powers must not disadvantage places with weaker tax bases.

The industrial towns of England, Scotland and Wales needed sustained action to rebalance the economy, with Westminster, devolved administrations and local authorities all having a role to play, it concluded.

“Britain’s industrial towns have the potential to contribute to the country’s wealth and they should be given a fair and equal opportunity to do so.

“If the devolution of powers and responsibilities to local authorities helps them do their job better, then devolution is welcome. But if devolution is accompanied by an abdication of responsibility by central government or a cut in funding, the net benefits are likely to be illusory.”

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