The battle for the best cities policy intensifies ahead of 2015 – but can anyone deliver?

Ed Miliband must show that he can succeed where so many before him have struggled.

Ed Miliband must show that he can succeed where so many before him have struggled

For a number of weeks now the major political parties have been trading blows in an attempt to present the most radical and ambitious plans for fostering economic growth outside of London and the South East.

Today, Ed Miliband sought to raise the bar further by accepting the recommendations of the newly published Adonis Review, pledging to devolve £30bn of funding to cities and county regions in the next Parliament.

So where does this latest announcement leave Britain as the parties compete for the best cities policy ahead of the 2015 Election?

The big emphasis from Labour this morning has been on making Combined Authorities the building blocks for greater devolution, with reconfigured Local Enterprise Partnerships acting more as advisory bodies on locally developed growth strategies, and with the whole agenda backed by more substantial sums of money – £20bn more than is currently planned over the course of the next Parliament.

There’s also a strong focus on empowering localities to shape innovation, infrastructure and skills policies in their areas, with the report not shy in advocating that cities and city regions need much more control over locally generated revenue streams – for example, through the local retention of business rates – as well as a greater say in how investment is targeted in their area.

Yet in many respects, Miliband’s endorsement of Lord Adonis’ proposals reminds us that there is a good deal of common ground between Labour and the Conservatives on this issue. Both parties are in favour of ‘city regions’ – power at the level of the ‘real economy’ that people and businesses recognise, rather than determined by artificial local authority boundaries. Both will also prioritise infrastructure investments in order to make the most of cities.

And despite heated debates about specific statistics, both agree that London is the dominant city in the UK economy and that something must be done to ensure that other cities, especially in the north, realise their economic potential.

This consensus is welcome, and absolutely fundamental to delivering real change. But it also risks concealing some concerning challenges common to both parties – such as the approach each plans to take in order to deliver on these ambitions for greater city devolution.

In his review, Lord Adonis appears to endorse a continuation of the ‘City Deals-style’ approach pioneered by the current government, whereby areas are allocated funding by government on the merits of locally developed growth plans.

While this approach has many positive aspects, it is important that lessons are learned from the recent past, and that the next government does more to prevent the process of ‘bidding’ for funds becoming bogged down in unhelpful and protracted Whitehall negotiations.

That means being much clearer on the criteria against which funds will be awarded, over what time period they will allocated, and doing everything possible to minimise the number of central government strings that remain attached. In all likelihood, this will depend upon strong leadership and support from the very top of government.

Miliband is absolutely right to prioritise strengthening the economy outside London, and it is encouraging to see both Labour and the Conservatives competing so vigorously to offer the most compelling vision for a more vibrant urban Britain. For far too long, the overly centralised structure of British politics and the national economy has constrained UK cities’ ability to respond to the rapid pace of change in a global economy, and prevented them from raising funds to invest in their future growth.

But now we need to see these commitments articulated clearly in the Labour Manifesto, supported by the kind of detail that ensures these ambitions can be matched by sustained action and investment required to deliver on the promise of change.

After all, successive oppositions and governments have talked big on city devolution over the last two decades, and ultimately failed to transform those words in to decisive progress on the ground – including, lest we forget, during the thirteen years of Labour government from 1997 to 2010.

Ed Miliband’s big challenge remains to demonstrate that he can succeed, where so many others before him have struggled.

Alexandra Jones is chief executive of Centre for Cities

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