Cities, City Regions, Growth and the Devolution of Powers

The Concept of City Region, the Labour Government and the Coalition

In this chapter we examine the concept of City Region in more depth and consider their development by the Coalition Government elected in 2010. 'City Region' is a concept established by economic planners and geographers (Tewdwr-Jones and McNeill, 2000) and relates to those major industrial and commercial cities capable of influencing an economic region, including other adjacent smaller cities, towns and rural areas. In 2005 the European Union had designated 61 'City Regions' (City Regions Commission, 2005), seven of which were in England. Of these, London had the highest per capita income (23rd of the 61), followed by Bristol (34th), and Birmingham (56th).

The Rogers Report (1999) saw that the role of cities as 'engines of economic growth is widely accepted and their spheres of influence – the City Regions – are becoming recognised as fundamental building blocks in the national fabric'. However, in England, the first actual City Regions developed from an initiative from three Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) in 2004 (The Northern Way website). In 2007 a Report of a Parliamentary Select Committee found that City Regions were 'the single emerging policy … which appears to have the potential to provide a credible alternative to the current arrangements' for regional government and particularly for environment, planning and transport. The idea was strongly supported by the City Regions Commission (City Regions Commission, 2005). The emerging importance and recognition of certain cities as regional centres followed on from the failure of the Labour Government to introduce elected Regional Assemblies in England after the negative reaction in the North East Region referendum in 2004. Thereafter the Labour Government relied on voluntary partnerships between neighbouring local authorities called Multi Area Agreements (MAAs) to co-ordinate bottom-up economic development. In its dying days, the Labour Government also proposed to introduce Strategic Leaders Boards as sub-regional bodies designed to co-ordinate between local authorities, but these were not implemented before the government fell in May 2010, as we saw in Chapter 2.

A group of the largest English city councils have been working together since 1995 under the designation of the English Core Cities Group to set out a vision of the development role that big cities should play. They style themselves 'the economically most important cities outside of London in England' (Core Cities' website). They are Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle,
Nottingham and Sheffield. These cities are distinguished from others by having wider partnerships with 'other public, private and community sector interests and agencies across each cities [sic] wider economies'. As a group, they claim to have three main aims: 'to represent the eight Core Cities on their shared priorities, to develop research and policy ideas on areas of core interest to the cities, and to work with government and other stakeholders as a delivery partner to implement those policy ideas and ensure better outcomes in our communities' (Core Cities website). Their party political leaderships span all major political parties, which has facilitated their co-operation with successive national governments within the frameworks set by national policy. As a result, they have in the past put into practice a variety of ideas for working across functioning economic areas, including City Region Partnerships (Labour Government), MAAs (Labour Government) and now Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) (Conservative-Liberal-Democrat Coalition Government) and City Deals (Conservative-Liberal-Democrat Coalition Government).

The Labour Government's Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act of 2009 empowered some cities to develop Combined City Authorities (CCAs). London was the first to be granted a Combined City Authority status. It includes elected members of metropolitan borough councils in its area and exercises the powers of the old Greater London Council and Borough Councils on overall London development affairs. It was followed by Leeds (Leeds City Region website) and Manchester (Association of Greater Manchester Authorities website). Even so, Manchester was not fully realised until 2011. Its CCA was designed to 'oversee the performance of the new devolved powers in the Pilot City Region agreement' (Association of Greater Manchester Authorities website) and includes representatives of all 10 metropolitan boroughs within the area. The main focus of partnerships for the majority of the Core Cities under the 2010 Coalition Government was initially in their LEPs. As we saw in Chapter 4, these are the Coalition Government's sub-regional bodies. Leeds, for example, had constituted its LEP as the Leeds City Region LEP (Leeds City Region website). LEPs exist in all areas, not only urban ones, and the Core Cities and the Coalition Government appear to see cities as a key to economic growth (Clegg and Clark, 2011) over and above all others.

Following the Rogers report (1999) the Deputy Prime Minister (Clegg) and the then-Minister for Cities (Clark) described cities as being major engines for growth. There is some justification for this, as Larkin and Marshall (2008) claim that some 75 per cent of the population in England live in City Regions and 80 per cent of the population work in them. The rhetoric is not dissimilar from that of the previous Labour Government and its City Regions except that Clegg and Clark argued that 'every city is different' and so will need different arrangements (Clegg and Clark, 2011) Their paper is only one of several Coalition Government policies for cities. Further policies are seen in the Localism Act (Department of Communities and Local Government, 2011), which in principle offers certain cities, CCAs and LEPs considerably greater powers. This Act had five key measures concerning
community rights, neighbourhood planning, housing, provision of a general power of competence to local authorities and empowering cities and other local areas. In this chapter we need to concentrate on its intention to 'empower major cities and other local authorities to develop their areas, improve local services and increase their competitiveness' (Department of Communities and Local Government, 2011). The government acknowledged that 'these new powers were included in the Act at the request of the Core Cities group' (Department of Communities and Local Government, 2011) who had developed an evidence base on which to argue that 'cities enjoying higher levels of decentralisation from their nation states – particularly over their finances – are more competitive and productive' (Murray, 2012). There was also the Public Bodies Act, which allowed Ministers to abolish, merge or transfer the functions of public bodies to other bodies or to the private or the third sectors.

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