How do we turn a city into a region?
11 March, 2005

Gerry Stoker, NLGN Trustee and University of Manchester
Local Government Chronicle

When the option of a full-blown regional assembly in the North East was rejected last year it took the devolution debate in England back to square one. Did it open up space for the return off the idea of building a more strategic level of local government based around city regions rather than the administrative regions that previous plans proposed? This is the focus of a Commission established by the New Local Government Network.

A starting question for the Commission is the definition of a city region. The basic idea is to build around a core city or set of towns. The outer boundary can be defined variously, from river basins to travel to work or economic connections, or through a focus on more cultural and political issues.

A major issue is that some city region ‘boundaries’ work better in some parts of the England than others. So a key question to address is whether the system could offer universal coverage, and if not what should be done for those areas where the existing county model makes more sense.

Another issue relates to functions. Transport issues arguably operate at the city-regional scale. So do issues of employment and regeneration – illustrated by the sub-regional strategies produced by the Regional Development Agencies. And environmental sustainability and community safety might also be better managed by a governmental structure at this level.

How then do we build a city region? A simple option is to utilise the previous structures of metropolitan counties and create ad hoc over-arching arrangements at that level. While this is an attractive way forward, it does not provide a clear base for developing a solution outside of metropolitan areas. As such, it may struggle to attract public support and more radical options should be considered.

On the one hand, we could go for strategic governance premised on journey to work, leisure and shopping patterns – although the scale of these would be too grand. Using the City of Manchester, for example, such an area might stretch way beyond the boundaries of existing Greater Manchester to incorporate parts of Derbyshire, Cheshire and Lancashire. It may even include some parts of Yorkshire!

Alternatively, we could ‘super-size’ around our towns, cities and counties. At least this territorial level means something to most people under the current arrangements. Even so, the idea of living in Manchester stretches beyond the imagination of those people who live in its immediate boundaries; just like the idea of living in Lancashire stretches beyond the established boundaries of Lancashire.

Unravelling such complexity and ensuring the reality of people’s lives is reflected in the structures by which they are governed will be difficult. But it is a task with which both the NLGN City Regions Commission and local government more generally must deal.