Financial Times: Boris Johnson’s ‘levelling up’ agenda depends on devolving power

6 March 2020

By Camilla Cavendish

When Chancellor Rishi Sunak unveils his Budget on Wednesday, it will owe much to a bold experiment that has been going on largely under the radar: the creation of metro-mayors. The Conservative commitment to “levelling up” by spreading prosperity is taking shape with input from newly-significant regional figures.

So far, “levelling up” has been largely taken to mean increased central spending on regional infrastructure. But if it is to have real bite, power must also shift from Whitehall to the regions. The job of revitalising neighbourhoods, crafting the right kind of housing, creating stronger connections between local firms, universities and training, is better done by those close to the action than from London.

Boris Johnson takes inspiration on this agenda from Ben Houchen, the Conservative mayor for Tees Valley and Andy Street, who holds the same position in the West Midlands. Mr Street’s lobbying was decisive in the prime minister’s eventual support for the HS2 rail project. Mr Houchen, like his friend Mr Sunak, is an ardent advocate of free ports. He is also infectiously ambitious for his region, which Mr Johnson knows will only vote Conservative again if promises to revitalise local economies are delivered.

Mr Johnson’s elite credentials can make it easy to forget that he was forged as Mayor of London. He instinctively understands the yearning of people to take pride in their neighbourhoods; he knows how cross-party alliances can improve local services. In becoming prime minister, he has revived a noble tradition of graduating from a local to a national power base. He likes to play up an obsession with buses — eccentric to some southerners. But it’s an indication that he feels for non-Londoners who have seen cuts to routes since services were deregulated in 1985. Research by the Leeds Open Data Institute suggests that poor bus connections have damaged the productivity of English cities compared to their French counterparts.

It is no accident that Mr Johnson gave his first major speech as prime minister at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester. He spoke of towns with “proud histories” now struggling with “endemic health problems”, of “down-at-heel high streets” and young people who “hope that one day they’ll get out and never come back”. When people voted to leave the EU, he asserted, they were not just voting against Brussels, but against “all concentrations of power in remote centres”. There could have been no clearer call to make regions and cities more self-governing.

Such a move is not without risk. When Margaret Thatcher slashed local government powers in the 1980s, it was in response to wild overspending in town halls including in Liverpool, notoriously overtaken by the Militant Tendency. The Treasury is right to worry about financial probity, despite modern Conservative moans about timidity.

Yet if Mr Johnson does devolve more power, he will be continuing a journey begun under David Cameron and George Osborne. From 2015, the Conservative government devolved some powers to directly elected mayors and councils — in places which were judged to have strong partnerships. “Devo Manc”, Mr Osborne’s attempt to create a Northern Powerhouse to rival London, was made possible by Manchester City Council’s formidable record of getting neighbouring authorities to co-operate. Politically, this was a big gamble by Conservatives who were well aware that big cities tend to vote Labour. But the potential prize was big too: reinvigorating local entrepreneurialism; rebalancing the economy.

To date, the process has not been uniformly popular. In 2012, many cities rejected having their own mayors. Nevertheless, the calibre of candidates standing for these new positions is impressive.

In May, Liam Byrne, Labour’s former chief secretary to the Treasury, will challenge Mr Street for the West Midlands. Greater Manchester’s current mayor is Andy Burnham, Labour’s former secretary of state for health. In London, former minister and Tory leadership hopeful Rory Stewart is standing as an independent in an attempt to dislodge Labour’s Sadiq Khan, himself often mentioned as a potential leader. At a time when politics can seem to tend towards extremes, these are all pragmatists to whom local politics offers a liberation: being able to grip problems and build alliances while enjoying better access to the heart of government than most MPs. With personal mandates, mayors can tell stories for their regions and make themselves heard above the London hubbub. It seems inevitable that they will seek additional powers to raise taxes. Already Michael Heseltine, the visionary Conservative who helped regenerate Liverpool in the late 1980s, and who backed the first enterprise zones, is calling on Mr Johnson to give local leaders more control of local taxes to improve police and education.

How fast “Devo Manc” will become “Devo More” is not clear. Not least because of the shadow of coronavirus, the Budget is likely to major on manifesto promises, such as additional nurses and police officers, rather than radical devolved revenue-raising powers. But if anyone is going to “level up” powers for mayors, it is likely to be a former mayor, who knows that England is highly centralised. He did not leave the EU to hoard power in London. Devolution could turn out to be the second revolutionary act of this government.

You can access the full article on the Financial Times website here.

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