Northern cities must listen to and act on government agenda

The Angel of the North against a bright, blue sky

This morning’s announcement by George Osborne that cities across northern England will be given greater powers is welcome news.

This is a great opportunity for many (mainly Labour controlled) cities such as Leeds, Sunderland and Liverpool to follow the blazing trail set by Greater Manchester last year and secure meaningful devolution.

But will they? There are many sceptics of the Government’s Northern Powerhouse initiative (not to mention its wider policy plans) in important positions in town halls across the north.

The temptation for local authorities who might like to use some of these powers is that they will start trying to set their own conditions and rules under which they will work with government to use them. PLEASE DON’T.

The reality is that central government holds the cards here – a newly elected Conservative majority government will be in no mood to make concessions over the detail of these plans – it will be George Osborne’s way or the highway.

Just look at the leaked detail and quotes released ahead of his speech in Manchester today as being reported on the BBC:

As part of the devolution plan, only cities that elected their own mayor would be given control of local transport, housing, skills and healthcare.

“I will not impose this model on anyone,” Mr Osborne will say, “but nor will I settle for less.”

The message is clear – no elected mayor – no extra powers. This is the defining political context which will shape the next five years. Local authorities who want to make up their own rules might find themselves playing a lonely game with dwindling resources.

It will be no surprise if those areas that engage with government on this issue suddenly find other opportunities developing further down the line.

Back in 2010 our work with Halton Borough Council on the Mersey Gateway Project was put on hold when all new major transport schemes were put into the pot for the Comprehensive Spending Review.

The project team and senior council leadership – officers and members – worked with us and our partners Interel Consulting to quickly engage with the new agenda, demonstrate the value for money of the project and the already significant private sector contribution to its funding. The end result – approval from government and INCREASED funding at a time when austerity measures were really starting to take effect.

The rewards will come to those authorities and LEPs who are fast movers and engage with the new more confident government agenda.