Imagine, if you will, the ‘So, where do you come from?’ conversation at conferences and seminars whilst queuing for the buffet lunch. I would wager that the majority of people from eight of the ten Greater Manchester authorities would identify themselves as coming from their borough, rather than Manchester (the exceptions probably being Trafford and Tameside). It is hard to imagine anybody from the part of the West Midlands that is not Birmingham describing themselves as coming from Birmingham. University aside, I have only ever lived in boroughs that exist not as places but as instruments of statutory local government functions. Rushcliffe is an important part of Nottingham. I grew up near Nottingham. Calderdale looks east to Leeds and west to Manchester. I live near Halifax.
In the impending era of devolved powers to combined city-authorities this matters. In the absence of anything else to shape the devolution agenda, these issues of local identity will.
Before the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority was called the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority it was called the Halton, Knowsley, Liverpool, St Helens, Sefton and Wirral Combined Authority. That probably raised a titter elsewhere, but whilst it was being discussed at one end of the East Lancs Road in April 2014 at the other end the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (established three years earlier) was discussing the first Devo Deal that emerged in November 2014.
This map, from the Centre For Cities, shows the city regions that will have an elected mayor in 2017.
In the People’s Republic of Yorkshire, a pretty significant chunk of what you might expect a ‘northern powerhouse’ to be, there are no Devo Deals in place outside of the South. The West Yorkshire Combined Authority has been pressing for a Leeds City Region deal covering themselves and some neighbouring authorities, which would build upon 2014's Growth Deal, but Conservative MPs in West Yorkshire along with North Yorkshire County Council (Conservative) and East Riding Council (Conservative) have been calling for a Greater Yorkshire deal covering all of the West, North and East.
The politics of devolution is messy. The wonkish, Whitehall-types are probably expecting civic-minded heirs to northern Victorian forebears to be seizing with relish any available investment and influence. The pragmatic, provincial Council Leaders are probably expecting, as they will have grown used to, a mandarin’s memo setting out what they need to do and by when. Neither is happening, so, authority by authority locally, and agreement by agreement nationally, progress is made in baby steps, but what is happening where and why is different in each case.
Why would Conservative MPs in Yorkshire be accusing the Leaders of the Labour-run West Yorkshire Council’s of a “power grab”? Why would Labour-dominated Manchester be nervous about the Mayoral strings that come attached to the Devo Deals? Why are the seven constituent council members of the West Midlands Combined Authority mostly Labour-controlled metropolitan authorities and why are the eight non-constituent council members mostly Tory-controlled and districts? Why politics, of course.
In terms of influence, every new power that a mayor gets is a power that a local leader either does not get or loses all together. In terms of investment, every pound that a mayor gets to spend on his or her priorities is a pound that a local leader is not spending on theirs. And to whom are local leaders ultimately accountable? Firstly, to their fellow local group of councillors, who rely on a successful leader for their own re-election. Secondly, and ultimately, leaders rely on the voters of their own ward for their own re-election.
The practicalities of devolution, for planning and development, are also messy. Since the two general elections in 1974, when, some unitarisation in 2009 aside, local government was last reorganised, there have been four swings of the Governmental pendulum and six Prime Ministers. In regeneration we have gone from Assisted Areas through Enterprise Zones and Regional Development Agencies to Local Enterprise Partnerships. In planning we have had Planning Acts in 1990, 1991 and 2004 and the Localism Act of 2011. Above the local planning authority we have had Regional Spatial Strategies prepared by Regional Assemblies and below local planning authorities we have Neighbourhood Plans prepared by Parish Councils. Layered on top of all of this now comes the combined authorities and Mayors that form the conduit through which powers will either be passed down or pulled up (depending upon your point of view).
The areas that make the greatest success of this era of devolution will be those with boundaries that align as closely as possible sensible policies and sensible politics. Greater Manchester, for example, is pursuing a joint Spatial Framework that will mirror closely its functioning housing market and economic area. Politically though it is telling that, whilst in all other matters of the 'Devo Manc' agenda a majority vote will be sufficient for progress, planning matters require unanimous approval. Will the leaders of the ten authorities be voting in Greater Manchester interests, their fellow group of local councillor’s interests, or their ward member’s interests?
The Greater Manchester picture though is one of blissful serenity compared to that in Birmingham. The Birmingham and Black Country housing market area of fourteen authorities, across which a voluntary agreement on distributing Birmingham’s housing shortfall of some 40,000 homes will one day be reached, currently includes one combined authority (with statutory and associate members), three LEPs and is encroached by one other housing market area (Coventry & Warwickshire), itself seeking to deal with a major shortfall emanating from Coventry.
This map is from Turley.
In Oxfordshire, where the need to resolve Oxford’s growth requirements is equally acute and contentious, the County Council published a report in 2015 on creating a single, County-wide unitary authority. Earlier this year the Leaders of Oxfordshire’s five district councils proposed the abolition of the County Council and the replacement of the five districts with four unitary authorities that would also include districts in Gloucestershire and Northamptonshire.
This map, also from the Centre For Cities, shows Oxford's Travel-to-Work area.
It seems apparent that something, ultimately, will have to give, but from where will the pressure to change come?
It would take a bold council leader to say that there are too many councils and too many leaders. It is interesting that Buckinghamshire County Council chief executive Chris Williams expressed his regret that the county still has “archaic” two-tier government. Mr Williams may have felt this way for some time, or he may just come to that conclusion. He retires this week.
The pressure from on top, from Government, is towards the acceptance of combined authorities and mayors rather than any fundamental redrawing of administrative boundaries (imagine how sensible it would be to look at parliamentry boundaries at the same time...). Interestingly, the Local Plans Expert Group recently highlighted that devolved powers will be less effective if they do not align with HMA and LEP boundaries (and vice versa). Another baby step perhaps.
Pressure from below? The issue, it is probably fair to say, is not upmost in the average shopper on the High Street’s mind. It is hard to imagine a candidate in the West Midland’s local elections being subjected to a tirade on the doorstep this May about why Greater Manchester is racing ahead in the devolution of criminal justice powers.
For those local leaders then who would like to mirror practical and political boundaries, the key will be not so much the desire of their local electorates to see change as local identity not being a barrier to standing in it's way. Put another way, therefore, the areas with people who are more likely to identify themselves as local first and regional second, and who care more about a perceived loss of identity, will benefit less from devolution because change will be harder to make. Put another way still, it will be harder to get hold of money to spend in the areas where who spends it is more important than what it is spent on.
As Ian Brown didn’t say, but I might start doing. It’s not where you’re from, it’s who empties your bins.