02 May 2018

Devolution in England applies to less than half the country. This needs putting right, says Christopher Caden.

Sheffield City Region will this week get its first mayor. There are seven candidates, but Labour’s Dan Jarvis is expected to capitalise on his party’s popularity in South Yorkshire. This will be the country’s seventh new ‘metro mayor’ created as part of the Government’s devolution agenda.

The other six were elected last year in Cambridge and Peterborough, Greater Manchester, Liverpool, Tees Valley, West Midlands, West of England, with powers over transport, housing and adult skills. They have been active in advancing their priorities in their first 12 months, as much through lobbying central government as through using existing resources.

  • On housing, West Midlands Mayor Andy Street successfully lobbied national Government, sealing a £350 million housing deal in the 2018 Spring Budget to increase the delivery of new homes annually from 10,000 to 16,000 by 2031.
  • On transport, the Mayor for Cambridge and Peterborough, James Palmer, has secured more funding for metro transport schemes.
  • On skills, the new Transforming Cities Fund shows the effectiveness of the metro mayors in making the case for further resources.

The metro mayors are also well placed to speak on behalf of their region on issues beyond their formal responsibilities. Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham took a leading role in the wake of the Manchester Arena attack.

Yorkshire is at risk of being left behind

The six metro mayors elected in 2017 may believe they need more powers and resources, but for the rest of England there is a risk of being left behind altogether. This applies even in the Sheffield City Region (SCR), due to a series of political disagreements about whether to go ahead with devolution at all.

The new mayor, initially at least, will be quite unlike the other six. Two of the four constituent authorities that make up the SCR – Barnsley and Doncaster – favour instead a Yorkshire-wide deal, which is backed by 18 of Yorkshire’s 20 councils, and are willing to back out of the SCR to achieve this goal. Until the matter is resolved, Whitehall will not be releasing the provisions agreed in the devolution deal. That means come Friday, the new mayor will have no funding, no powers and no salary.

The priority for the incoming mayor and for central Government is to get the four councils around the table and overcome their differences, unlocking the agreed powers and funding.

Devolution within England is an unfinished business

Devolution has fallen down the agenda at Westminster. There is little talk now of what former Chancellor George Osborne called a ‘devolution revolution’. The metro mayors, however, clearly see devolution as an unfinished process. From their public statements, three priority areas for further reform have emerged.

  1. A skills gap, post-Brexit. Metro mayors are aiming for the adult education budget to be devolved immediately and for post-16 skills and further education to be released in the near future. However, they see the Department of Education (DfE) as particularly un-cooperative in devolving responsibilities. Tees Valley’s Ben Houchen noted that the DfE "is not our friend".
  2. The range of devolved fiscal powers is notably small. Even the agreed power for metro mayors to add a small supplement to business rates to invest in infrastructure has yet to be implemented. The limited ability of metro mayors to raise their own revenue caused surprise among visiting US mayors at a recent international conference in London. At a summit between the six metro mayors and the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan last November, the group called for a "significant increase in fiscal devolution".
  3. How to replace EU structural funds after Brexit. At present, these city-regions receive significant EU investment. Manchester, for example, receives £100 million as part of the EU Structural Funds per year. Liverpool’s Steve Rotheram, Andy Burnham and Ben Houchen wrote to the Brexit Secretary David Davis calling for the current EU funds to be replaced by a single pot, with reduced bureaucracy and decision-making powers held at the devolved level.

The current settlement is imbalanced and requires clarity

The absence of devolution in places like Leeds, parts of the Midlands and the south coast reflects the current incomplete nature of England’s devolved settlement. In total, around 20 million people live in areas with devolution deals, leaving over half of England without any devolution at all.

To resolve this imbalance, the Government will publish a devolution framework to provide "clarity and consistency about what a successful devolution agreement looks like." Crucially, this might include a relaxation of the requirement that all devolution deals must include a directly-elected mayor, a model that remains unpopular in many local areas.

In recent months the finalising of the North of Tyne devolution agreement alongside a One Yorkshire application indicates that there is still an unmet desire for devolution in many places. This Thursday marks another (very) small step in the devolution process – but this should be far from the end of the journey.

Please note: the commenting function has been temporarily disabled while essential server upgrades take place.