Devolution works best when politicians put place before party 

Kevin Whitmore BECG

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Kevin Whitmore

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Devolution works best when politicians put place before party 

For the first time in 2024, a majority of people living in England will be represented by an elected mayor. 

Next year will see the election of mayors for York & North Yorkshire, East Midlands, Suffolk, Norfolk and an expanded Northeast Combined Authority, which means for the first time, a majority of people living in England will be represented by an elected Mayor. The new year will also mark the ten-year anniversary of negotiations to create the first metro mayors in England outside London.

With both political parties committed to deepening devolution ahead of a General Election, it has never been more important for planners and developers to understand England’s changing political landscape and respond to the “place-first” mantra of mayors. The addition of another tier of politicians to contend with may not fill developers with confidence. But what has become clear is that where devolution works, this is all down to elected mayors putting place before party. 

The ability to identify local priorities, use convening power to bring together likeminded investors and partnering with the private sector to transform our built environment, offers an alternative way forward to the over-centralised stereotype that Whitehall knows best.

Since 2014, a patchwork of devolution deals has been agreed from Cornwall to Northumbria and Liverpool to Peterborough. Most include directly elected mayors with powers over transport, skills and economic development. But others have more limited powers with no directly elected politician at the helm.

Outside of London, Greater Manchester and West Midlands are the two City Regions with the most high-profile Mayors and deepest devolution powers. Both of these City regions agreed ‘trailblazer’ deals with the Government earlier this year that will see additional powers and a single financial settlement given to both conurbations. 

An additional five Mayors are set to be elected for the first time in May 2024, including England’s first County Combined Authority in the East Midlands. A further six areas have declared themselves candidates for future devolution deals to be negotiated.

For planners and developers, the most obvious manifestation of mayoral power is the Mayoral Development Corporation (MDC). The MDC is designed to speed up development and attract investment into specific sites. They are statutory bodies with powers to buy and develop land and infrastructure that are chaired by the relevant directly elected mayor. They can be given a range of powers, including the ability to compulsorily purchase property, build roads, take planning decisions and take control of existing public assets. 

There are currently only six MDCs in England, with two in London, one in Greater Manchester and three in Tees Valley. The Greater Manchester MDC, focused around Stockport Town Centre, has fewer powers than the other five, with planning functions retained by Stockport Council. But the MDC model isn’t without controversy. A government-commissioned independent review into the Teesworks MDC in Redcar is looking into concerns raised about accountability, governance and the use of public assets at Europe’s largest brownfield site.

Andy Street, Mayor of West Midlands. Photo: Gary Mitchell/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty

Trailblazer deals agreed with Greater Manchester and the West Midlands by government as part of the 2023 budget will see these two areas receive more housing and regeneration powers, including flexible funding and local leadership for affordable housing and brownfield land development. Both combined authorities will also receive flexible funding to support the retrofitting of properties and improve energy efficiency.

The deals will also see both City Regions take on expanded responsibilities in a number of policy areas, including transport, skills, housing, and retrofitting. They will also be given a greater say over local railway services, with the West Midlands Combined Authority taking on responsibility for the bus services operators grant, which Greater Manchester already has responsibility for.

Both City Regions will embed further powers over adult skills and an expanded role in post-16 technical education. But perhaps the most ‘trailblazing’ aspect of the deals is a new single departmental-style funding settlement for the Combined Authority in the next Spending Review. This will be a first for city regions in England and will put Greater Manchester and the West Midlands on a similar footing to Government Departments.

Insiders see this as the single biggest win of the Trailblazer Deals and argue that it will provide the City Regions with real autonomy to make better policy decisions around local growth and place, local transport, housing and regeneration, adult skills and buildings’ retrofit for decarbonisation. 

With Greater Manchester and the West Midlands able to retain the business rates raised in their areas for another decade, there is every reason to think that a place-first approach to development will continue to pay dividends, especially when this is matched with a clear spatial plan that investors can understand and depend on.

Should Greater Manchester’s Places for Everyone Joint Development Plan be adopted in 2024, the City Region will once again be at the vanguard of the devolution settlement in England, demonstrating how the powers it agreed almost a decade ago can be used to boost economic growth, tackle the housing crisis and fight against climate change.

For now, other mayors haven’t had the power or the inclination to grasp strategic planning in areas beyond Greater Manchester. Perhaps 2024 will be the year when they start to wonder whether the political pain would be worth the economic reward.

*Header image: The Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham on October 24, 2023. Photo: Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty

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