The major announcement was that 20 cities and city-regions get the chance to bid for a ‘Wave 2′ deal. It’s a competition – the Cabinet Office sift bids around the turn of the year. Successful pitches will get a ‘core package’ plus local options, then go live sometime in 2013.
There was also lots of reflection on the wider Deals process – now almost a year old. I got quite excited about all this back in December. Some real challenges are now emerging.
Some immediate points on the Wave 2 proposals. First, we need more detail on the sift criteria, and a sense of how many cities will get through. I suspect the Cabinet Office and HMT may have different views on this. Officials are also working on core package specifics. I’d expect skills, transport and finance to feature – and perhaps, Earnback-type arrangements for everyone?
Second, not all the 20 are city-regions. Ministers say local groups should self-organise. But the evidence says fitting the right policy asks to the appropriate scales is crucial. Relying on local political coalitions may not result in genuine functional economic areas.
Some wider issues:
1/ What can we expect? Ministers were very confident that City Deals will achieve substantive economic change: ‘the leadership of cities is incredibly important to their success’, said one. But the evidence is ambiguous on whether these direct effects actually exist. There may be indirect links from empowered leadership to growth – say, if this helps secure investment, or produces innovative policies. City Deals will help test that argument.
2/ It’s the process, stupid - as I’ve said, this is a long game. Getting the systems right is crucial – on negotiation and sift in the short term, and delivering culture change in the longer term. Like industrial strategy, the Deals system has to be flexible, and allow for failure.
As Dani Rodrik argues, in some ways process is more important than content in these situations. City Deals are basically experiments, and some won’t work out. The right institutional setting and rules are fundamental – not least to identify failure quickly. So it’s good that Core Cities will get a chance to renegotiate Deals in future, for example. Wave 2 cities should also get this.
3/ Whitehall as blockage – Clegg, Clark and others were very open about problems persuading some parts of Whitehall to engage (shades of Blair’s ‘scars on my back’ speech?).
Some of these blockages were already emerging last year, and Ministers and the Cities Policy Unit have done well to minimise these. But I guess one reason for the Wave 2 announcement is to keep the pressure up, co-opt city leaders in the cause, and build a critical mass of devolutionary pressure. There will be severe tests of political leadership ahead, especially on welfare and benefits.
4/ Peer support and mentoring – Central government is investing in mentoring for cities – each gets a Cities Unit ‘partner’, alongside a senior ‘sherpa’ for each LEP. The Core Cities group also says it’s interested in peer support advising Wave 2. This is welcome stuff, which will be essential for some of the candidate cities. However …
5/ Too far, too fast? - Central government capacity is now getting very stretched. The officials are good, but there’s only so many of them. Even if over half the Wave 2 candidates are sifted out, this still doubles the workload. And there was some talk yesterday of a Wave 3, covering rural areas, before 2015.
This rapid roll-out has already drawn some fire from New Economy Manchester. There’s clearly a political argument for acceleration. But Ministers should be very careful it doesn’t come at the expense of effective delivery. Official capacity needs beefing up. And again, process is key. Individual Deals should move forward at different speeds; some will be renegotiated; some may need a pause.