UK Politics

Scottish-style powers for England's cities?

Manchester Piccadilly gardens Image copyright PA
Image caption Could city regions such as Greater Manchester be handed significant more powers?

With David Cameron promising more devolution in the wake of the Scottish referendum result, the cities and counties of England hope their moment has come.

They've argued for years that this is, perhaps, the most centralised major democracy in the world.

The prime minister, among his other constitutional promises on Friday morning, indicated that the government would say more "in the coming days" about how to "empower our great cities".

Greater devolution of tax and spending powers to the big urban areas of England is described by the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, as "one of the best and most elegant solutions".

A call echoed by London Councils, an organisation which speaks for London's boroughs. It wants devolution of property taxes, and more local say over housing, skills, schools and transport.

The Local Government Association - which represents the majority of English councils - is calling for "immediate action" to "set councils free from the grip of Whitehall".

Not to be forgotten, the counties of England are also lobbying hard for their own devolution plan.

They argue that the "counties play a larger role in the UK economy that cities ever will".

But are the forceful demands of councils, a clutch of think-tanks and ministers moving way ahead of public opinion in England?

Where is the evidence that millions of the country's residents are demanding a massive relocation of power from central to local government?

'Suck power upwards'

The last major attempt to empower cities outside London took place two years ago when voters were given the option of having an elected mayor.

Bristol chose to follow London. But Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield, Coventry, Wakefield, Bradford, Birmingham, Nottingham and Leeds all voted against.

Image caption Eric Pickles has sounded a note of caution about further devolution

One of the key reasons voters in those cities rejected the idea was because they didn't want another expensive tier of bureaucracy.

Ah, said the supporters of the devolved city model, but the question wasn't asked in the correct way. The vote should have been about powers not personalities.

They also argue that these campaigns were fatally undermined by the lack of determined support by the main parties and their councillors.

Now, supporters of city devolution say the appropriate vehicle for decentralisation is the city region rather than the city itself (for example the huge Greater Manchester authority, not just the city of Manchester).

Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles, though, has been a voice of caution in recent days. He says there's significant scope to devolve more power to local communities in England - but that this should be to the "appropriate level".

Huge big-spending Combined Authorities might, in his view, "suck power upwards" - away from local people. The danger, he says, is that the result of calls for devolution will be new taxes, more politicians and new tiers of local administration.

Whitehall or Town Hall?

The experiment with elected Police and Crime Commissioners shows how difficult it is to take even a relatively modest idea for local democracy and make it work.

A radical re-organisation of power and responsibility in England will be so much more difficult.

The call for "change" is the easiest, and often most persuasive, political slogan. But now the main parties will have to back that up with firm commitments. The timetable is ambitious. The politics horribly thorny.

Conservative MPs will have to decide whether they really want to create super-powerful (probably Labour-dominated) urban authorities.

Labour will have to consider what the real implications of decentralisation are for institutions like the NHS. They'll have to think hard about the balance between national standards and local choice.

Difficult questions will be asked in the coming days and weeks about whether Whitehall or the Town Hall is better able to deliver health, social care, transport, education and local economic growth in the decades ahead.

For the centre, giving power away has never been easy.

But whilst the issues and mechanics may be incredibly complicated, some of this may come down to a simple question: Who do voters trust more to govern them - national or local politicians?

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