Power to the cities – where’s the catch?

Nothing can go wrong on the road to the Northern Powerhouse, can it?

It seems to be the policy that everybody loves. So what’s not to like about the idea of giving more powers to our northern cities?

Last week the Chancellor George Osborne set out plans for his City Devolution Bill, building on the Northern Powerhouse proposals and the Devo Manc deal which saw the city of Manchester awarded significant new powers in the last Parliament.

Osborne has signalled that this Bill will go further, saying that English cities will get new powers over housing, policing, transport and planning – essentially along the current London model. Agreements look set to be developed on an individual city basis, with no one-size fits all model to consider.

But the Chancellor is not simply giving these powers away. There is a clear trade-off for cities to consider – Osborne has made it clear that only those cities who agree to move to have a city mayor will be rewarded with the widest powers. His argument is that such powers should only be invested in someone who can win the support of the whole city – not simply a ward councillor who becomes a leader of a council. The additional argument – although not often discussed – is that it is simply easier for the Treasury and Whitehall to deal with one individual.

Local government can appear quite messy from Westminster – but councils are proud of their administrative set-ups and don’t take kindly to having settlements imposed on them by Whitehall. Speaking at the recent Core Cities ‘Devo Declaration’ event, Joe Anderson, the straight talking Mayor of Liverpool put it succinctly, warning that converting to a mayoral system was a deal local government could take or leave – just don’t expect much if you choose to leave it.

Labour were completely wrong-footed by the Northern Powerhouse proposals and realise they have some catching up to do on the city devolution agenda. Speaking at the same ‘Devo Declaration’ event, Graham Allen MP said that Labour had been completely “played off the park by the Tories” – and didn’t look like catching up any time soon.

Unpicking these proposals will be very difficult considering it tends to be Labour administrations leading the very cities most likely to benefit from these powers. Coupled with the fact that the popular Greg Clark has replaced the belligerent Eric Pickles at CLG, this is going to be a complicated place for Labour to pick a fight. The challenge facing Labour’s new shadow CLG secretary – Emma Reynolds MP – is to demonstrate a commitment to city devolution, while still picking at any available holes in the policy.

But at the moment, the Tories are starting to make serious incursions to what should be safe ground for Labour. Their response will need to be rapid and ambitious.