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English devolution 'should power' development

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Prime Minister David Cameron’s post-Scottish referendum call for a new debate on ways to improve governance and ‘empower our great cities’ has prompted a raft of proposals for boosting autonomy from Westminster for the nation’s biggest cities

As the party conference season began, Greater Manchester Combined Authority and Leeds City Region wasted little time in signalling their thirst for greater devolution, with both arguing that job-creation and economic growth would result.

According to think-tank Centre for Cities, control over the spending of business rates and council tax, coupled with the ability to raise additional funding for economic growth projects through new, locally agreed, taxes were key elements of devolution.

Over the weekend, the research group urged whichever political party is in power following May’s general election to introduce a ‘Cities and Prosperity Act’ to empower city regions to create long-term place-based funding settlements and to pool normally-separate funding streams for areas such as housing and transport.

It also wants city regions to be allowed to take control of public sector assets, such as those overseen by the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) – as is the case in London.

Chief executive Alexandra Jones said the UK  economy was being held back because its cities lacked power and funding enjoyed by their international counterparts.

‘It has never been clearer that the status quo, whereby decisions and funding are tightly held in Westminster, must come to an end if we are to drive long-term economic prosperity,’ she said.

‘[The Cities and Prosperity Act] will put fiscal devolution and the decentralisation of other significant powers from Whitehall immediately on the table for those city-regions with the capacity and appetite to drive change, and will support and encourage others to transition sustainably towards assuming a greater role in fuelling economic growth.’

Many of its calls are echoed by the Local Government Association (LGA), which represents more than 370 UK councils.

Chairman Councillor David Sparks said it was vital that any new devolved powers received by Scotland as a result of pre-referendum pledges had to be given to local areas in England and Wales.

‘It is locally-elected councils - driving their local economies through devolved taxation and greater control over council tax and business rates – which can satisfy the desire of people in England to have greater say in the places they live and work,’ he said. 

As part of its strategy, the LGA is calling for a new settlement on which public services should be delivered nationally, sub-regionally, and locally.

Richard Woodford, partner at Manchester-based consultancy HOW Planning, said the coalition government’s scrapping of Regional Spatial Strategies had left a void in the system that city-region-wide strategies could remedy.

‘If city regions with devolved powers were better able to support the delivery of infrastructure for new housing, that would be an important thing,’ he said.

‘Infrastructure costs are upfront, but profits for housebuilders are towards the end of the process, so any ability that city regions had to gap-fund infrastructure costs could be very helpful.’

Woodford added that any ways city regions could give the development sector more confidence would also be a boon.

Responding to Scotland’s no vote on Friday, David Cameron said ministers would ‘say more’ about devolving power to the UK’s biggest cities ‘in the coming days’.

The Centre for Cities manifesto, which was launched over the weekend, can be read here.

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