‘The 38 Deals?’

Posted by Peter O’Brien, 21st September 2015

By midnight on Friday 4 September, 38 groupings of local authorities, cities, city regions and local enterprise partnerships in England had heeded George Osborne’s call to submit proposals to HM Treasury for new ‘Devolution Deals’, which local areas hope will result in new powers, resources and flexibilities granted in return for governance reform and commitments by local actors to drive local economic growth, primarily through infrastructure investment and renewal.

So we can add the prospect of 38 ‘Devolution Deals’ alongside 28 City Deals in England and Scotland, 4 further Deals for Greater Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and Cornwall and 39 Local Growth Deals, which local enterprise partnerships are responsible for delivering; together making a grand total of 110 deals of some form or another. This gives added weight to the argument that we are now in a deal-making world in local and regional development. The sheer volume of deals, in a climate of austerity and significantly reduced institutional and individual resources and capacity, also begs questions about the efficiency and effectiveness of deal-making as a model of implementing decentralisation from the centre to local government.

The 2015 iBUILD Manifesto and Mid-term Review called for infrastructure planning, investment and delivery to be better aligned to city and city region strategies and economies. With City Deals and the potential new Devolution Deals containing strong infrastructure elements, it seems, at least on the face of it, that we are moving in the right direction. However, we should continue to ask whether earlier and more recent developments – through the 110 deals – signal a fundamental shift towards embedding a stronger and longer-term role for local authorities and cities to take greater control over their economies by planning, investing and managing local infrastructure assets and systems? Or are the different variants of Deals simply project and programme-led initiatives, which will last purely for the timescale that particular interventions remain functional?

There are three issues worth considering in the aftermath of the latest dash for devolution. First, with gaps still remaining around the levels of local fiscal autonomy that some cities and city regions want and what HM Treasury is prepared to give, local institutions are increasing searching for new and innovative sources of investment for infrastructure and other capital-intensive activity. These efforts, however, continue to run up against the UK’s highly-centralised political economy, system of governance and Central Government’s deficit reduction strategy.

Second, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, and Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Greg Clark, both insist that ‘substantial’ devolution from the latest Deals will only be considered if city regions and others agree to introduce ‘metro-wide’ mayors. This means that localities are faced with the often difficult process of navigating through local sensitivities and concerns that fundamental reforms to local governance are being introduced without public consent or without a cast-iron guarantee of what Central Government will actually give in return for city regions agreeing to elected mayors.

Finally, with 38 new bids on the table, the capacity of Central Government and local institutions to negotiate and agree a large number of new deals will be severely stretched. Expect to see a handful of new Deals agreed in different stages, with the usual suspects ahead of the curve alongside one or two surprises, but equally there will be a large number of disappointed places in the short to medium-term. How Whitehall manages the prospect of initial large-scale ‘gaps on the map’ will be a real test of the Government’s devolution strategy.


Economic Geography and Policy

Posted by Nick Henry, Visiting Fellow, CURDS, Co-Director, Centre for Business in Society, Coventry University, 15 September 2015


After 10 years out of the academic economic geography ferment – as a public policy and evaluation consultant of EU, UK and quangocracy economic and social development programmes – I plunged back in at the 4th Global Economic Geography conference at the University of Oxford in August.

The session on ‘Economic Geography and policy: what do we have to say and to whom?’ was particularly interesting (but so were many) in asking a question that had been asked by Ron Martin, Doreen Massey and others as I left academe in the early 2000s. At that time, Ron Martin was exercised especially by both the ‘cultural turn’ and the powerful and rising policy influence of spatial economics and, for him, the seeming invisibility of geographers in public policy circles.

The good news over a decade later was that the Panellists (Susan Christopherson, Ron Martin, Jamie Peck and Andrés Rodrígues-Pose) were agreed in believing and illustrating the substantial progress that has been made by economic geographers in engaging with and influencing policy (although with greater ambivalence from Jamie Peck given his Canadian residency and period of employment in north America).

However, the Panellists exhorted also for more to be done by the sub-discipline and subsequent discussions and questions from the floor often bemoaned the difficulties, randomness and quirkiness of engagement with policymakers.

Yet for me, given my recent return to academe from the policy making arena, the debate still showed some of what still needs to be done – principally because there was only limited evidence of the room’s understanding of the policymakers ‘mindset’. A sense of less of ‘in their shoes’ than if we promote our material more strongly the ramparts of policy will fall.

I would illustrate this lack of understanding based on the seemingly simple but important statement that policymakers are ‘the machinery of government’. It implies, for example, that even as policy makers purport to be independent they will reflect the language, if not the ideology, of the government they are serving. Indeed their job is to implement ‘efficiently and effectively’ the will of the democratically elected and accountable government.

Bluntly, what it means is that some of our suggestions as economic geographers will simply not be able to be considered. Policy reflects political choices (government) and if your suggestions aren’t the right political flavour then I wouldn’t beat yourself up about ‘not being listened to’ (it’s going to be a longer-run game).

‘Machinery’ also means the processes of government; not once in a debate on policy was ‘the policy cycle’ mentioned. Yet this is the simplest of managerial tools which frames the work programme of policymakers. What is required and being sought through what (level of open) process matters a great deal dependent on the stage in the policy cycle.

Is a policy maker defining the problem or issue (and seeking evidence for it) or designing the intervention (what we know/best practice), monitoring progress (hopefully formatively) or evaluating and learning lessons as the basis for kicking off the cycle once again. The session had rare examples of positive joy that policymakers had been ‘open to new ideas’ – but they won’t be listening in such a manner if they are further through the policy cycle, and nor should they be.

For sure, policymakers do want ‘solutions’ – as was flagged by the Panel – but I might suggest also rather more insistently the point that was made that universities are now merely one knowledge provider/intermediary in the system (alongside think tanks, lobbyists, international organisations, consultancies, gurus, etc.). Many of these also are much more focused and adept at crafting their message for the policymaker, especially in the new media environment.

As academics we need to understand that we have a certain ‘market position’ in the policy machinery – defined (still) by greater independence, rigour (most of the time) and less constrained assumptions amongst other things. Notwithstanding an increasingly schizophrenic machinery of government, these attributes still have to be delivered in the right manner, and at the right juncture, if further progress with policymaking is to be reported in another decade!