What do you know about the Northern Powerhouse? According to a poll commissioned by the BBC, the answer could very well be nothing. But given that England’s devolution bill has now received royal assent, it’s probably a good time to get to grips with what the Northern Powerhouse actually is. After all, it’s likely to mark the biggest change for decades to how local areas are run in England.
The Northern Powerhouse, as championed by the chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, is what he hopes will emerge from a series of deals to devolve new powers and responsibilities away from central government in London, to regional authorities. The “standard package” for each city region involves access to some £900m of extra funding, spread over 30 years, on the condition that it elects a “Metro Mayor” to oversee proceedings. But every deal has its own nuances, and each area will be affected in different ways.
Here’s a wrap up of how the major devolution deals are playing out, and the changes they’re likely to bring to a city near you.
As the first area to agree terms with central government, the Greater Manchester deal – sometimes known as “Devo Manc” – gives us a flavour of what we might expect the wider Northern Powerhouse to look like.
The big news is that control over all traditional emergency services will be devolved to the Metro Mayor. Right now, Police Commissioner Tony Lloyd is acting as interim mayor. He’ll chair the Greater Manchester Combined Authority until the official mayoral elections in 2017. After that, the new mayor will also take charge of a £6bn health and social care budget, and absorb the powers of the Police and Crime Commissioner.
Those living in the Greater Manchester area can also expect to see a fair bit of construction going on, as local authorities strive to build 10,000 new homes each year, in order keep up with demand. To this end, a further £300m of investment will be made available over 10 years through a housing investment fund.
Greater Manchester’s planning system will also undergo significant reform. The mayor will be granted the ability to develop a “Statutory Spatial Plan” for Greater Manchester – which, much like the London Plan will include the ability to designate housing zones on brownfield sites and other opportune areas.
The transport system will also get a makeover. Electrification of train lines towards Leeds is planned, and the mayor will gain control over the franchising of new transport services and the delivery of new, Oyster-style integrated ticketing.
North East City Region (Tyneside)
The North East devo-deal takes on a distinct economic flavour, with the £30m a year being used to support the creation of 10,000 new jobs for the region. The North East is one of few city regions to make hay out of the ability to generate further revenue from variable business rates, which will be used to fund local infrastructure projects. This revenue will, however, be capped at a maximum of £30m per year.
Rural growth will be a key focus of this devo-deal, including greater local control over the running of Northumberland national park.
Liverpool City Region
Under its devolution deal, the Liverpool City Region will receive the same controls over transport planning granted to Greater Manchester. But, in addition, the deal will also help Merseyrail to procure new trains and carriages.
The new mayor is also expected to take control over the price of road tolling. This will almost certainly affect those using the Mersey Tunnels. But the implications for the Mersey Gateway bridge in Halton – scheduled for completion in 2017, when the new mayor takes office – are as yet unclear.
The city region has provided detail on how it will spend the £30m-a-year fund. Investment will focus on unlocking profits and job opportunities created by the River Mersey. Although original proposals to create a Free Trade area were missing from the final deal, it’s clear that the Superport – a multi-million pound development in Sefton – will place shipping at the heart of the region’s economic future.
Building on Liverpool’s reputation as a city of culture, the deal also aims to ensure the ongoing presence of National Museums Liverpool.
Sheffield City Region
Sheffield City Region’s deal remains a bit more generic at this stage. Alongside similar provisions for transport, the £30m-per-year is to be used to “boost growth” through innovation and infrastructure. To this end, there are ambitions to create an Advanced Manufacturing Innovation District, as well as a National Institute for Infrastructure, to be built in Doncaster.
Although the deal clears the way for Sheffield to create a Statutory Spatial Plan and build new houses – just like Greater Manchester – negotiations around a similar Housing Investment Fund are ongoing.
It has been mooted for some time that city-deals would not be limited to the northern regions. Now, the signing of the West Midlands’ devo-deal has put the “Midlands Engine” on track to rival the “Northern Powerhouse”. This, and the signing of Cornwall’s devolution deal earlier last summer, signals that a devolution train may well be pulling into a city or region near you.
The scale and ambition of the West Midlands deal – which includes Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton – comes much closer to that of “devo-Manc” than the other regions. A larger package of £36.5m per year has been made available, totalling more than £1bn over 30 years.
And while all the key ingredients of transport reform are there, the West Midlands deal also contains concrete measures including extensions to the Metro light rail system out towards Digbeth and proposals for extensions to Curzon and Brierley Hill. This, it is argued, will allow the city region to make the most of HS2, once it is completed.
Of course, how these deals will play out in practice is difficult to predict, particularly while government austerity continues. Recent cuts have stoked fears that the new mayors will be left to account for budget shortfalls which they are unable to plug, without help from central government. Likewise, devolved business rates could just as easily increase inequalities as enhance competition. These new-found freedoms will either give England’s city regions the steam they need to power forward – or cut the engine completely.