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The Reframing of Local Government in the UK

Michèle Finck, University of Oxford

After the independence referendum that took place in Scotland in September 2014, the UK is reflecting on a new decentralisation arrangement. While Scotland voted against independence, these negotiations are nonetheless underway as David Cameron had promised Scots that, should they stay within the UK, they would receive more independence in administering their affairs. His government is now delivering on that promise in crafting a new devolution arrangement – which would not however be limited to Scotland but have wider consequences for power-sharing arrangements in the UK. Many aspects of this planned new arrangement are noteworthy, as they may be another step on the UK’s path to federalism. Extensive online commentary is already available on these evolutions.

My comment will be limited to only one facet of these changes, namely the reinvigoration of local governments in the UK, which, with the notable exception of the Greater London Authority (GLA) have extremely limited powers at present. This planned new power-sharing arrangement is commonly referred to as “Devo Met”, devolution to the metropolitan scale. Importantly, this evolution is limited to England and Wales and does not concern cities in Scotland or Northern Ireland.

The first step in redefining the contours of local government in the UK occurred with the introduction of city-regions (also referred to “combined authorities”) in England. The planned reform would allocate more power to such authorities, which will also have directly-elected mayors, in order to equip them with the tools necessary to function properly. The 2015 Queen’s Speech proclaimed a commitment to the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill that is currently being debated in Parliament and would make these changes happen. The bill will devolve responsibility for housing, transport, planning and policing powers to combined authorities. “City-region mayors” will be instituted, an evolution observed with a critical eye by some as the move counters prevailing public opinion. In 2012 53.2% of citizens voting in a Manchester referendum rejected the idea of a directly elected mayor, which they will now get. Indeed, in 2012 plebiscites in only one out of ten cities (Bristol) that got to vote on the innovation endorsed the idea of directly elected mayors; the other nine rejected the concept.

The powers attributed to combined authorities are however not as far-reaching as one might expect and are to a large extent subject to the central government’s discretion. The proposed bill is strikingly generic in its formulation, noting, for instance, that [t]he Secretary of State may by order make provision for any function of a mayoral combined authority to be a function exercisable only by the mayor.” The Secretary of State also has discretion as to whether to approve an application for the creation of a Mayoral Combined authority, stating that she or he may allow such an authority only if  the “making of the order is likely to improve the exercise of statutory functions in the area or areas to which the order relates.”

The aim of the new reforms is mainly economic development, a concern shared by the national and respective local governments. The Core Cities Group, which represents Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield, has been calling for fiscal reform of large cities, especially with respect to property tax revenue (including council tax, stamp duty, land duty and business rates). Such reform would allow these localities to use tax revenues to stimulate local economic growth in a fashion that accounts for local needs and strengths. The group hopes that “empowered cities can be more competitive and incentivised to grow faster” as local leadership delivers better results than central administration. This, it is expected, will remedy the current imbalance regarding economic growth in the UK – in recent years, London and the South East of England has experienced much more pronounced economic growth than the rest of the country. Empowering cities, it is argued, may boost the economic output of the rest of England. The creation of a “Northern Powerhouse” (made up of the city regions of Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Hull and the North East) is in fact a key priority of the current government.

While other cities are being empowered, London may also see its competences increase. This is encouraged by the recent Traver’s report that recommends devolving more financial and fiscal responsibilities to this global city.  Gareth Thomas, a London mayoral hopeful of the Labour Party, has even claimed that London should be treated as a city-state, attributing it taxing powers similar to those of Scotland. The focus on London and other big cities in England has however been subject to criticism for ignoring smaller localities, which are burdened by exodus and economic decline. The reforms have been called a mere ‘modest and sporadic response to growing demands for greater local autonomy.’ Smaller localities, which will not receive similar powers, are left to complain as they are not included in the efforts to boost localism, and with it, local economic development.

While this is not the place to conduct an in-depth analysis of the proposed reform, I would suggest that they are in part emblematic of a wider trend that can be observed in contemporary governance structures. First, in a world that is becoming more and more urban, the importance of local government is being rethought and cities are being considered important motors of economic development. According to Chancellor Osborne, the old model of running the UK from London is out-dated and no longer adequate. He also stated that “[p]eople want to cluster together in communities and feed off each other’s ideas. City size matters more than ever before. Firms need access to increasingly deep pools of human capital. People of talent and ambition want to live in places with great schools, good jobs, fast transport connections, sport and culture. That’s why cities that were once hollowed out are now filling up.”

A second aspect of contemporary governance structures that finds expression in this context is the interconnection between different scales. Indeed, what is noteworthy about Devo-Met is not solely the devolution of competences to the local scale but also the interconnection of these localities through the promotion of city-regions. The goal of the reform is ultimately to get England’s cities to work together rather than in isolation. What remains to be seen is how these plans will work once implemented and how they will shape cities and city-regions as well as power-sharing arrangements in the UK more generally.

Suggested citation:  Michèle Finck, The Reframing of Local Government in the UK, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, July 15, 2015, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2015/07/the-reframing-of-local-government-in-the-uk/

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Published on July 15, 2015
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