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Forget Manchester, why can’t Birmingham have a city region like Leeds?

Forget Manchester, why can’t Birmingham have a city region like Leeds?

🕔27.Jul 2015

“Cornwall leapfrogs West Midlands in devolution race” was the headline over Paul Dale’s recent report on the Government’s devolution deal with Cornwall Council. It’s a depressing message, so I thought I’d shoot, if not the messenger, at least his metaphor writes Chris Game in the second part of today’s focus on the devolution race.

My own sense of the devolution race is that it’s not a single race, but more like the London Marathon – several races taking place simultaneously with different categories of participants starting off from different places at different times.

As the first rural council to negotiate a devolution deal, Cornwall certainly deserves credit, and doubtless its methods are being studied closely by other counties rushing to recruit partners and submit bids in time to get them agreed by the Chancellor’s November deadline.

These county areas, though, are effectively in a different race from the big cities. Their bids will vary greatly, in scale and aspiration, and in London Marathon terms their equivalents are perhaps the ‘Good For Age’ runners, who secure guaranteed entry by having recorded a specified time considered good for their age group.

They’ll hopefully win the appreciation of their friends and residents, but the big prizes will inevitably go to the Elite runners – the 150 miles a week guys, who need a 2 hours 20 time just to qualify, and sub-2 hours 10 to get into the serious prize money.

As we need no reminding, in the devolution race Greater Manchester is the only elite entrant to have glimpsed serious fiscal devolution-type money and frankly it’s in a class of its own. The region starts with natural advantages, with its geographical and political coherence, and its 10-council team of runners was first out of the blocks in 2011, in applying to become the first Combined Authority (CA).

Moreover, they run as a team, agreeing to accept the race sponsor’s favoured elected mayor along with all that devolved funding, and now the prize money keeps arriving on almost a monthly basis – most recently on Budget Day, when they won £30 million funding for ‘Transport for the North’ plus control of the fire service, Land Commission, children’s services and employment programmes.

Following the elite runners are the Championship entrants – registered members of an athletics club, with a certified 2 hours 45 race time. The devolution equivalent is the exclusive Combined Authority club – still just the five members, those in addition to Greater Manchester being, to give them their official names, West Yorkshire, the North East, and the Sheffield and Liverpool City Regions.

West Yorkshire, Sheffield and Liverpool are actual or, in Liverpool’s case, near reincarnations of the areas’ 1972-86 metropolitan counties, and in that sense similar to Greater Manchester. The North East CA is different – hugely bigger than the former Tyne & Wear met county, but having at least the coherence of covering the same area as the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP).

The three former met county CAs were all name-checked by George Osborne in his recent Summer Budget speech – but few seemed to notice the precise names he used. The Government, he enthused, was “working towards deals with the Sheffield and Liverpool City Regions and Leeds, West Yorkshire and partner authorities on far-reaching devolution of power in return for the creation of directly elected mayors” (my emphasis).

Having undertaken a serious resident and stakeholder consultation exercise back in March – unlike some other devolution hopefuls – North East leaders were rather peeved not to have made Osborne’s list.

Since then, though, they’ve moved fast – not exactly embracing, but dropping their outright opposition to, an elected mayor, and opening talks on a “radical devolution deal” with Communities Secretary Greg Clark.

At present, therefore, they’re possibly ahead of Sheffield and Liverpool, but what exactly is happening in West Yorkshire? How is Leeds, unlike Birmingham, apparently managing to retain its nominal identity in its devolution bid?

Prior to the election, it was assumed that big city devolution deals would be negotiated with, where they existed, Combined Authorities. But then, in late June, Greg Clark delivered his remarkable eulogy to LEPs.

These partnerships between business and councils, Clark gushed, had been “a phenomenal revolution [and] completely changed the way investment and growth is done in this country”.

The areas that combined authorities are now following are the same areas defined by LEPs as being the true economic geography of our nation. As such, no devolution deal will be signed off unless it is absolutely clear that the LEPs will be at the heart of arrangements.

This is where Leeds City Region comes in. A city region is an economists’ and planners’ term to describe the functional region around a city – the ‘true economic geography’ of a city, as Greg Clark might put it.

We’ve had the label for ages, but institutionally not much happened until the arrival in the late-2000s, following the rejection of elected regional assemblies, of Multi-Area Agreements (MAAs) – voluntary agreements between a number of local authorities and the government to work collectively to improve local economic prosperity.

There were eventually 15 of them. Of the big cities, those for Greater Manchester, South Yorkshire, Liverpool, and Tyne & Wear took the forms their respective CAs now do.

But, instead of West Yorkshire, there was Leeds City Region, as shown in the accompanying map: the five former West Yorkshire metropolitan county boroughs, plus Barnsley from South Yorkshire, and Craven, Harrogate, York and Selby from North Yorkshire.

Leeds city region








MAAs were formally wound up by the incoming Coalition, but in practice most, like Leeds City Region’s, accompanied their authorities into their new LEPs. Which explains why West Yorkshire’s devolution bid is focused, as the Chancellor convolutedly but correctly described, on ‘Leeds, West Yorkshire and partner authorities’, or, more succinctly, Leeds City Region.

But didn’t Birmingham have a Multi-Area Agreement and a city region partnership, I hear you ask. To which the answer is yes, it did, briefly.

It went under the catchy name of the Birmingham, Black Country and Coventry City Region, was chaired by City Council leader, Mike Whitby, and produced, among other things, an MAA for Employment and Skills. But it was short-lived, with Coventry soon opting out to concentrate on developing its links with Solihull and Warwickshire.

And there we have Birmingham’s devolution problem in a nutshell: no convincing city region. Instead of the pubescent MAA partners developing together, perhaps with the addition of adjoining authorities, into a single LEP corresponding to Clark’s ‘true economic geography’ of the city region, it split instead into three: Greater Birmingham & Solihull, which struggles to convince even on the map, the Black Country, and Coventry & Warwickshire.

WMCA map

Currently, therefore, our devolution hopes rest on a recently, and for some unenthusiastically, agreed proposal for a seven-council West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) to run transportation, regeneration and economic development.

It clearly can’t claim, in Greg Clark’s words, to have any of its three LEPs “at the heart of arrangements” – although that could change with the possible addition of some or more councils in Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire – a state of uncertainty that the proposed CA area’s only elected official has publicly pronounced “an absolute dog’s breakfast”.

Finally, far from it having been agreed that the CA should have accountability through an elected mayor,  it apparently won’t have any individual leadership at all. Apart from numerous commitments to “collaborative working”, the Launch Statement has nothing to say about governance, although the understanding is that each council leader will take responsibility for an individual policy portfolio.

Returning to the London Marathon analogy. Greater Manchester obviously crossed the Mall finish line long since, has donned its foil blanket, collected its Virgin Money finishers’ medal, and is heading back up the M6. Several others are on the home stretch between Big Ben and Buck House, but it seems the WMCA still has some miles to go to reach the Embankment. Hard as I try, I can’t persuade myself that the WMCA isn’t still running around in circles on the Isle of Dogs.

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