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City Region Deal-Making and Combined Authorities in England

A Lost Opportunity for Devolution?

Résumé de la contribution de Stephen Hall (University of the West of England Bristol) and John Mawson (University of Durham), 29 juin 2017

The paper’s principal argument is that the current vogue for city regional governance in England represents the residual of a flawed and highly asymmetrical restructuring of territorial governance of the UK pursed in the past 20 years. The paper is structured in two parts. Part one presents a critical chronology of the reform of territorial policy and governance in England since World War Two. The narrative of the ‘North South divide’ has dominated the British space economy since the middle of the twentieth century. Following World War Two, a Keynesian ‘traditional’ regional policy sought to address disparities between regions through a system of differentially applied development incentives and constraints. The importance of traditional policy was much diminished (although partially commented by European Union regional policy) during the mandate of Margaret Thatcher (1979 to 1990) which advocated a market-led approach to resolving spatial inequalities. The government of Blair and Brown (1997 to 2010) re-established a comprehensive regional policy but, crucially, no longer informed by a Keynesian redistributive logic, but one that emphasised the endogenous development of regions based on Porterian notions of competitive advantage. However, the failure of a referendum in North East England to install a fully elected Regional Assembly signalled the beginning of the end of the Labour regionalism project and the emergence of the city region debate. Labour’s regional agenda was displaced by the Coalition government’s commitment to localism. A weak infrastructure of city region planning based on new business led organisations (Local Enterprise Partnerships) and a formal ‘duty to cooperate’ on local planning authorities was introduced. This programme, criticised as representing a strategic vacuum, has been (partially) corrected since 2011 by the introduction of city region ‘deal making’ (a process of strategic “contractualisation” between central government and local authorities), the Northern Powerhouse (a meta-planning region encompassing the major city regions of Northern England to counter balance the economic dominance of London, and combined authorities (legal structures that permit two or more local authorities to merge statutory powers). Part two presents a critique of these new arrangements. It is argued that the government’s stated aims and objectives are vague, albeit characterised by dominant themes of economic development and the renewal of local democracy based on the adoption of directly elected ‘metro mayors’. The geography of the new combined authorities is ‘fuzzy’, ostensibly based on functional urban areas but, in practice, built on local political convenience. The system of deal making is, contrary to government rhetoric, highly centralised and coincides with a period of unprecedented cuts to government financial support to local authorities. The combined authorities have been established with limited public engagement resulting in very low (20%) turn-out in the metro mayor elections.