The Young Fabians Devolution and Local Network recently spoke to Lisa Nandy (MP for Wigan and Centre for Towns) and Jonn Elledge (Editor of City Metric). John Morris summarises the debate.
The road to Brexit was decades in the making, and largely the result of successive governments failing to deal with the challenges of deindustrialisation and globalisation as well as failing to empower and connect these communities to tackle these challenges themselves.
Even now, when some cities and even counties are getting unambitious devolution deals, towns are often an afterthought, if they are considered at all. However, towns have much to offer with cheaper rents, access to clean water and a loyal, willing and hardworking workforce. Small towns together with the right investment can offer all the same things cities can: a large labour pool, an educated population and vital infrastructure.
Towns also have identities of their own; they are not simply extensions of the countryside or the cities that they orbit. For example, transport in Greater Manchester is geared towards Manchester city, despite the many large and independent towns around Manchester. While central government squabbles over how many Stagecoach buses should run down Oxford Road or which platforms to lengthen at Piccadilly, it remains much easier for a commuter to travel via public transport from Wigan to Manchester than from Wigan to Bolton - even taking into account the unreliable ‘service’ from Arriva Rail Northern. That being said, it is much easier for Cllr David Molyneux (Leader of Wigan Council) to challenge Andy Burnham on this than Chris Grayling. Devolution is a step in the right direction but is just as capable of creating a centric administration as a national one is.
But devolution deals around identity can be a problem as well. Sometimes public services and economic units do not fit within geographical areas of identity. Take the ‘One Yorkshire’ deal for example - should a Yorkshire authority have control over Transport policy for all of Yorkshire? Especially when South Teesside (traditionally part of Yorkshire) has more need to connect to North Teesside than with the rest of Yorkshire. Another example is Sheffield, which has more economic links to Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire than with North Yorkshire.
But then again, Britain has used asymmetry to devolve power to nations. Is there a reason not to do it for local government in England? Yorkshire devolution and a Sheffield city region don’t have to be mutually exclusive depending on what powers are being devolved.
I bang on about transport because England’s towns and cities have lagged behind their European counterparts for decades now. Overseas, towns with a population of 50,000 often have trams. Amsterdam, a city of similar size to Leeds, has a public transport system that is more diverse and effective than its Yorkshire counterpart with buses, trams, a subway system and comprehensive suburban rail network. Leeds has only buses, and not particularly effective ones from what I hear.
Are towns destined to be devoured by the cities they orbit? History tells us it's inevitable. However, has there ever been a real, concerted effort to preserves these towns and help them compete with cities? A good example of how not all projects have to serve a ‘centre’ and be a success is London Overground, now stretching as far north as Hertfordshire and as far south as Croydon. Utilising previously unloved London Underground lines and lines which would otherwise be only open to freight, the expansive network is now essential for connecting the outer boroughs of London together.
Devolution provides an opportunity to empower our cities and towns to control their own destinies and take responsibility for their failures. However, just as important is how devolution deals are delivered. Do they take the needs of all stakeholders into account? Are the resources within those deals adequate? Do the powers devolve suit the needs of the local authority?
If Labour wants to be a party for those in our towns as well as our cities, it will need to answer these questions.
John Morris is Secretary of the Devolution and Local Government network. Follow him on Twitter at jonny_in_london