Councils start to flex muscle in search for local power

Manchester Town Hall
Image caption Could Manchester Town Hall be a major regional seat of power?

Will Greater Manchester (GM) be the first part of England to benefit from a degree of devolution?

As the major political parties attempt to patch together a constitutional response to Scotland's post-referendum "devo-max" settlement, the chancellor has signed a deal with local civic leaders to offer their city-region a greater degree of self-government.

Westminster has a significant problem with Scotland, which is currently the subject of a commission (to report at the end of December) considering the logistics of handing additional powers to Edinburgh.

The more Scottish parliamentarians control their own taxes, borrowing, public spending and welfare, the less fair it appears that England has no equivalent powers.

Wales, like Scotland, is on the road to additional tax devolution.

England is a highly centralised country: 95% of all taxes are set by the chancellor, with the "local" 5%, council tax being effectively capped by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles.

Councils have very limited freedom over local resources.

Cities and counties in England must bid to central government for a share of the public expenditure financed by tax paid by their own residents.

This picture is not new, things were the same under Labour.

City region

Following devolution to Scotland and Wales in 1999, the Labour government offered a weak version of regional government to England.

The North East famously rejected the chance to have a regional assembly in 2004, largely on the grounds it had virtually no powers.

Subsequently, cities and city-regions have come forward with proposals for greater local autonomy.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Control over public transport is devolved in London

Greater Manchester started the process of developing a "city-region" in 2004.

The 10 metropolitan districts in the wider Manchester metropolitan area, which had been within a "metropolitan county" until it was abolished by the Conservative government in 1986, began to build up their capacity to govern jointly.

In particular, they developed an economic plan that included proposals to concentrate economic activity in some locations and improve transport links so people could access new jobs created in the city centre and close to the airport.

Towards the end of the last government, councils were given new powers to create "combined authorities", which made it possible for Greater Manchester and other groups of authorities to create formal new structures that could provide a robust basis for more effective joint action.

Transport, fire and emergencies and economic planning were among the functions brought together by the GM authorities and, increasingly, other city-regional groupings.

The present government has thrown its support behind the wider use of joint-working by councils.

All regional government bodies, including development agencies, were abolished after the coalition took office, allowing new sub-national groupings to emerge.

Ministers encouraged "local enterprise partnerships" (LEPs) to be formed by groups of authorities and local businesses.

These LEPs are able to bid for central grants to encourage local economic activity.

It is from this background the deal between Greater Manchester and Chancellor George Osborne emerged.

There will be a GM-wide elected mayor, plus greater powers over transport, policing and skills training.

New investment in transport has also been promised.

Other big cities, notably Leeds/West Yorkshire and Sheffield/South Yorkshire are expected be given their own package of powers, though the government wants them to adopt a "metro mayor" in exchange for greater freedom and resources.

The North East, involving Newcastle, Gateshead and a mixture of urban and rural councils, has concluded a deal to extend its control over bus services.

Most city-regions want the powers enjoyed by Transport for London, the capital's powerful rail, bus, tram and taxi agency.

Regional initiatives

Other cities and city-regions will not want to be omitted from this tentative step towards devolution in England.

Birmingham and the West Midlands, in particular, have been largely sidelined in the debate about the future governance of northern cities.

Birmingham and its neighbours are now taking steps towards creating their own combined authority so as to qualify for additional powers.

In the East Midlands, the geography of Nottingham, Leicester and their respective counties makes progress towards a devolutionary offer more complex than elsewhere.

Derbyshire is setting up a county-based joint authority, to include Derby.

In Bristol, it has thus-far proved difficult for the city and its surrounding councils to create a city-regional entity.

For parts of England that are not city-regions, major cities or London, there is an increasing sense they are being cut off from the devolutionary action.

Places such as North Yorkshire or the Thames Valley, are significant economic entities in their own right.

Cornwall has a separate cultural status and could claim separate government arrangements.

Over time, it will be necessary for the government to offer devolution to smaller cities and rural counties - 10 authorities in south-east Wales are also considering a large combined authority.

For the time being, however, it is the great cities of England that are making the most pressing demands for more autonomy.

If this or the next government decides that the "English question" is to be answered by transferring power from central to local government, it is likely that Greater Manchester, Leeds/West Yorkshire and Sheffield/South Yorkshire will be the vehicles to achieve such change.

Whitehall obstacle

The main obstacle to reform is Whitehall.

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Image caption Birmingham City Council is one of the largest local authorities in Europe

The Treasury feels the need to control every pound of public expenditure while the health and education departments are perennially involved in top-down reform of their services.

Ministers and civil servants do not want to cede powers to cities, city-regions, counties or anyone else.

The Cabinet Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government are broadly pro-localism, but they rarely win major battles against bigger battalions such as the Treasury.

So what might English government look like by 2020?

It is unlikely there will be an English parliament, as such an institution would seriously unbalance the union of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Major metropolitan areas, including the built-up districts around London, Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, Newcastle and Sheffield will almost certainly have been given enhanced service responsibilities.

Free-standing smaller cities and counties (probably combined with their districts and smaller unitary councils) may still be waiting their devolutionary package.

A far more radical outcome might, of course, be possible if there were a political earthquake at Westminster which changed the dynamics of British government.