‘City Deals’: a missed opportunity for green growth?

Posted on January 15, 2013

Today sees the deadline for the submission of the second round of ‘City Deals’. Twenty cities and city regions are putting proposals to DCLG based around four ambitious objectives to:

• Boost local economic growth

• Rebalance the economy spatially and sectorally

• Decentralise the powers and levers cities need to drive local economic growth and

• Strengthen their governance and leadership

When they were originally announced, by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in a speech in Leeds in December 2011, ‘City Deals’ were part of the carrot to encourage large cities to opt for elected mayors. Devolution of major new powers and budgets to new city leaders were promised. Unfortunately with the exception of Bristol, the electorates didn’t play ball. But DCLG pressed on and the deals were announced in July 2012, with Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield – thereby ironically, cutting the new mayor in Bristol, George Ferguson who wasn’t elected until November 2012, out of the process. At the time of the DPM’s announcement, there was a sense that this might be a real and significant constitutional change, in tandem with the arrival of the new city mayors. But between launch speech and the reality of policy on the ground, things became a lot more prosaic, as the agreements struck in 2012 lay bare.

As ever with central-local government relations, the reality has in no way matched the original hype and in a time of retrenchment generally and ever smaller budgets for local government in particular, DCLG have been in no position to provide anything very much in the way of new resources. Staff in Councils and Local Enterprise Partnerships (who are key players in the proposed new ‘city deals’ because of their focus on private sector-led economic growth) comment that ‘there is no real money in it’ and that the process and likely outcome, is similar to that seen in the negotiation of Local Public Service Agreements (LPSA) and the abortive ‘Total Place’ initiatives under the last Government.

There is one striking difference between ‘city deals’ and LPSA’s, picked up by the Green Alliance in their report ‘Green Cities; using city deals to drive low carbon growth’ .  Whereas LPSA’s all had a climate change/green economy strand in them, the city deals struck with the ‘big eight’ cities have this dimension largely as an add-on, if that. The Green Alliance found that only Leeds framed its approach to growth with a low carbon vision for the city and that apart from Newcastle, few deals acknowledged the role of tackling climate change in securing resilient economic growth. Bristol, a city whose image has been predicated on an at least vaguely greenish tinge, has a City Deal that makes no mention of the subject.

Now the programme is being extended in a ‘second wave’ of twenty localities from ‘Sunderland and the North East’ to Plymouth. These are the next 14 largest English cities and their wider areas and a further six, such as Greater Cambridge and Milton Keynes with the highest population growth between 2001-2010. One of the striking aspects of this group of cities – the smaller and fast growing ones, is that they in many cases, already have a significant ‘green economy’ dimension, or are cities whose location brings opportunities waiting to be exploited, such as Hull and Tees Side. But if the poor record of the first round of City Deals is any kind of baseline and with the second round of city deals focussing on a single initiative rather than a range of measures, the prognosis for more than a handful ending up taking advantage of this crucial part of the ‘rebalancing’ of the UK economy looks pretty bleak.

This blog also appeared on the INLOGOV blog  site on 15  January 2013.