City region debate at the crossroads
21 October, 2005

Chris Leslie, Director, NLGN
Regeneration and Renewal

Over the past few months it has looked increasingly as though regionalism is facing a fork in the road, with the direction the Government chooses hanging in the balance. The ‘no’ vote in the North East regional assembly referendum has forced all instinctive regionalists to pause and take stock. David Miliband has headed off visiting core cities across the country, raising speculation that “city-regions” are the new and alternative shape of things to come. So on the one hand, enhancing powers for England’s core cities might look like a plausible way to rebalance power without grating against public opinion and local identity. But on the other hand, comprehensive regional economic development and efficient strategic government both suggest a continued drive for regional structures as the fairest way forward. For instance, there had been talk of police authority reorganisation on a regional basis following hot on the heels of a Learning and Skills Council regional configuration.

Where is policy heading? Is it really a choice between cities or regions as the way forward? The answer lies in the distinction between regional and local government. Local government will always be closer to the people, the most responsive to neighbourhood problems and will always provide the most accessible set of decision-makers. Regional government (whether elected or administered by Whitehall civil servants as now) will always focus on broader economic fundamentals and economies of scale. In short, regional government will never do what a responsive frontline local authority can do, and local councils can’t easily fill the shoes of a regional coordinating body. Each has different sets of qualities, both of which are needed across England, which leads me to conclude that stronger local and regional governance is vital – especially outside London, where the GLA and Mayor look set to zoom still further ahead.

Regionalists should welcome stronger cities with greater clout as enhanced local government can only complement, not compete with, the need for regional coordination. For the time being, radical city reform and unification is only realistic in two or three city-regions outside London – Greater Manchester, Greater Liverpool and (perhaps) Birmingham. Elsewhere, while voluntary coordination between existing councils is happening and is to be welcomed (for instance between Derby, Nottingham and Leicester; or in the Association of West Yorkshire Authorities), there are still too many diverse identity and structural differences to see wholesale amalgamations on the cards.

Would a Greater Manchester city-region remove the need for North West regional coordination? There is no great threat here for regionalists to fear – in fact, a louder voice from one city, drawing in investment, is likely to boost momentum for devolution rather than slow it, not least as others nearby want their share of the action.

There are five golden rules to bear in mind. First, England deserves a balanced system of government, recognising the importance of London but not obsessed with the capital at the expense of the rest of the country. Second, nobody can invent a utopia from scratch – political structures will emerge from existing demographics, evolving from local identity and consent, not imposed from the top down. Third, local government needs strengthening, even if at varying speeds in different areas – as long as the direction of travel is right. Fourth, public services cannot coordinate from Whitehall alone, they need to settle at the most appropriate level, often local but sometimes regional for sound reasons of efficiency and economy. Fifth, decisions should be democratically informed as far as possible, because the public should always know where the buck stops.

These five rules should govern the devolution agenda as it is drawn up over the months ahead. I hope that the final report of the City-Regions Commission, for which the New Local Government Network acts as secretariat, will also illuminate this debate still further. Without doubt, this is a difficult route to navigate, but the detailed thinking will make the difference.