Politicians and commentators discussing new policies often talk about which part of the electorate a certain measure benefits. Manifesto announcements are seen to appeal to pensioners, home owners, savers, small business owners, ethnic minorities or women. This is followed by data on how many voters are in that respective group, and how they could be key in a specific marginal seats.
What is rarely spoken about in this context is urban voters. According to the World Bank, 82 per cent of the British population live in an urban area. On this basis it seems odd that we don’t hear more about the battle for urban votes.
There are offers, though, on the table in the upcoming general election on devolving powers away from Whitehall to large urban areas. We know that, regardless of the outcome on 7 May, the UK’s constitutional landscape UK will unfold in an unprecendented way with increased powers to Scotland, likely to be followed by other transfers to Northern Ireland and Wales. With so much focus on the future of Scotland, it is easy to forget what part England will play in this debate too.
Moreover, the rest of the UK economy needs action. One of the main priorities of the coalition government was to rebalance the economy away from the South East to the rest of the country. This just hasn’t happened on anywhere near the scale Cameron and Clegg spoke about in the summer of 2010. It is this lack of economic recovery outside of the South that is giving Labour a fighting chance on polling day.
So who is offering what when it comes to the city agenda? Unsurprisingly the Conservatives are sticking with their slogan of creating a Northern Powerhouse. Central to this is the deal Chancellor George Osborne struck with Greater Manchester, which sees the city gain a whole host of devolved powers, from transport to skills and health, alongside the creation of a newly elected mayor for the region.
Elected mayors have not proven to be popular in the past, but the Conservatives appear to be making them a pre-requisite for any future significant deal. We saw through the reluctance of leaders in Leeds to accept an elected mayor that this reflected on its overall package of new powers.
Put simply, the Conservatives are pro-city devolution to any UK city that shows an appetite for it, but to receive the ‘Manchester offer’, it must accept increased accountability to the local electorate.
The Labour offering appears to be less sexy. This is partly because the party lost ground to the Conservatives around the Northern Powerhouse agenda; Labour lacks an exciting way of describing its ambitions for cities.
On the plus side Labour has commited to introducing an English Devolution Act which would transfer £30bn of funding to city and county regions, along with new powers over economic development, skills, employment, housing, and business support. In a similar move to the Conservatives, Labour has also commited to allowing city and county regions to retain 100 per cent of additional business rates raised from economic growth. Elected mayors, however, do not feature in its plans.
Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats will offer to devolve more economic decision-making to local areas, building on the work of City Deals Growth Deals. The party also proposes Devolution on Demand, letting local areas take control of the services that they want control over.
Telllingly, the Lib Dem manifesto states that “in some areas of England there is an even greater appetite for powers, but not every part of the country wants to move at the same speed”. This ‘appetite approach’ could come to define the process of English devolution over the next five years. And it will ultimately depend on local politicians in urban areas calling for increased responsibilities.
In almost every interview you’ll see between now and election day politicians will talk about boosting job creation and improving skills. Sadly it is rare these issues will be spoken about in the context of devolution. Why? Because the issue of devolution does not inspire voters.
Can politicians address this? Perhaps not in the short term. The best chance of these debates becoming more closely aligned is if towns and cities across the country begin to the see the benefits of what is beginning to unfold. On that basis, all eyes will be on Manchester over the next few years, the test bed for English devolution. Whether devolution in Manchester succeeds or fails could have wider implications for the localism agenda. Manchester has the opportunity to be a trendsetter once again.
Image Source: Richard Heyes