A stuttering start for the
East Midlands Engine
With Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Greater Manchester receiving more devolved powers from central government, is a culturally and politically divided East Midlands at risk of falling behind?
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have received significantly more fiscal autonomy following last year’s Scottish referendum and, more recently, Greater Manchester – part of the so called Northern Powerhouse – has received more control over spending powers.
But what about the East Midlands?
According to some experts, the East Midlands is now facing the real risk of falling behind when it comes to receiving devolved powers. It is widely accepted that one of the main reasons for this is a lack of regional cohesion – both culturally and politically.
Alistair Jones, a politics lecturer at De Montfort University, explained why he thinks the East Midlands is struggling for traction in the fight for devolution.
“We don’t really have an East Midlands identity,” he said. “The problem is that we’re quite an artificial construct – people don’t really know what we are.
“The rivalry between our largest three cities – Nottingham, Derby and Leicester – is huge. The East Midlands is significant enough economically to compete with the Northern Powerhouse, but the biggest problem we have is leadership.”
It has so far been a requirement for metropolitan areas to establish leadership in the form of directly elected mayors for powers to be passed down. But Alistair believes that even if the metropolitan areas of the East Midlands had an elected mayor (Nottingham and Derby rejected the idea in a referendum in 2012), it would not solve the problem of leadership.
“Even if Nottingham were to have a mayor, he or she would be in competition with Derby and Leicester’s mayor – and this is the regional identity problem,” he said.
However, the region hasn’t always faced this issue, according to Alistair. “When there was the East Midlands Regional Development Agency, it accessed loads of money from the EU and was the best at doing so in England. With the abolition of that body, the regional identity has basically disappeared.”
The East Midlands Regional Development Agency was replaced by new groups called Local Enterprise
Partnerships (LEP). There are currently separate LEPs fighting each other for inward investment in Leicester, Nottingham and Lincoln, which has undoubtedly contributed to a more fragmented region.
A new hope?
One organisation which is lobbying for more powers to be handed down – regardless of whether there is combined authority in place – is the Local Government Association. In a statement, LGA chairman David Sparks said that a directly elected mayor shouldn’t be necessary in devolution deals.
“We firmly believe that people should be free to choose the appropriate level of governance for their community,” he said. “We would urge government to reconsider its position so that local and central government can work together to meet our shared ambitions for our citizens.”
Adding to those comments, Chris Fay, an LGA spokesman, talked of his quiet optimism after the first reading of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill.
“The first reading was better than we expected – it kind of wrong footed us a bit,” said Chris. “In the bill’s explanatory notes, it says there could be instances where a devolution deal could be offered without a combined authority in place.
“It mentions the need for councils to agree to a strong and accountable governance arrangement, but it stopped short of saying areas would need an elected mayor. This has to be positive for somewhere like the East Midlands.”
Increased localism in the East Midlands could potentially have a positive effect on business in the cities and county areas. Ian Borley, a senior partner at professional services company KPMG, voiced his concerns about the region’s ability to attract investment without more devolved powers.
“I’m concerned that the East Midlands is falling behind when it comes to political deals that could see more investment to the area,” he said. “There’s a lot of discussion in the media about the Northern Powerhouse and the Scottish devolution agenda. There is a need for the East Midlands to speak as one and that means businesses as well as local government and the local enterprise partnerships.”
It seems there is a hunger for devolution among the public. A ComRes study found that four out of five people wanted more devolved powers to their locality. For this to happen in the East Midlands, central government will need to find a new way of handing down the power.
Whether this happens quickly or slowly, it is hard to tell. However, the focus should always be on how to provide the best service possible for the country.
The questions for the new Conservative government is whether they can provide the services needed while making cuts, and can they do this without significant devolution to all parts of the UK. Tony Blair once said that people don’t really care who provides services, as long as they provide them well and people get value for money. On that point, at least, he’s probably right.
In the same week that the Queen’s Speech laid out plans for devolution to reach all areas of the UK, the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill had its first reading in the House of Lords. It is reasonable to infer then that political decentralisation is a priority for the new Conservative government.
Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has made it clear that the UK – widely recognised as the most politically centralised Western nation – suffers from a ‘broken’ system, and that radical reform is required if the country is to realise potential economic and social prosperity outside of London. That reform is already happening at a rapid rate in some areas.