It seems that, against all the odds, a new consensus on regional devolution is emerging.
Andrew Adonis’ review is an important contribution to the debate around the need for greater devolution of budgets, resources and political powers from Whitehall. I particularly welcome his comments about the role of combined authorities in addressing the United Kingdom’s economic challenges, and grasping our opportunities.
The most recent elections saw the political landscape grow ever more complex at a time when strong and clear leadership has never been more important.
The combined authorities are crucial to addressing these challenges. We now have five combined authorities based around the largest cities of the north – in the Liverpool city-region, Sheffield, Greater Manchester, the north-east and West Yorkshire.
We are working hard to secure funding, building partnerships with the private sector and local enterprise partnerships to provide leadership and transparency – formalised in strong, legal entities. We are already seeing successes and greater strategic working across our key areas of transport, logistics, economic growth and skills. We are speaking to central government with a single, clear voice. For the time being, it seems we are winning the argument.
For so long, the UK’s economy has been unbalanced. We have the worst regional disparities in the developed world. Monaco aside, property prices in London are the highest in the world. Our economy is over-reliant on financial services, to the detriment of manufacturing.
Effective rebalancing must go beyond business. Without a redistribution of political power, the north will have little leverage in competing for national resources.
The northern regions account for 28 per cent of England’s population (just over 15 million people). Compared with other parts of the UK, we have weak political institutions. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have devolved administrations, substantially responsible for decision-making – especially the case in Scotland. London has a directly elected and well-resourced metropolitan mayor. Even the outer south-east has stronger political institutions, for the most part retaining elected county councils.
Our new combined authorities are hungry for a chance to become engines for growth again. Adonis is right to highlight the industrial revolution – once again we have growing, highly specialised industries that can compete on the global stage. In renewable energy, advanced technology, the aerospace and automotive sectors, British companies are challenging in international markets.
Combined authorities are a crucial first step on the road. Now present in all the big northern city-regions, these are not directly elected authorities, but they do bring together the leaders of all the relevant district councils in a strategic body which has statutory status. They carry with them the promise of more powerful and effective strategic leadership and action.
The challenge for regional leaders is to ensure that we do not lose sight of the role that our locally and democratically elected representatives have as leaders of their diverse local communities, bringing the local player to the national stage, and retaining the distinctive character of England’s regions – places, people and communities who define our identity.
One thing is clear: the devolution genie is out of the bottle and the voice of England’s regions outside London must be heard.
Phil Davies is chair of the Liverpool city-region combined authority
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