British communities minister David Miliband has welcomed proposals on city regions

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UK government studies
the case for city regions

By Andrew Stevens, UK Editor

15 December 2005: A London-based think tank with the ear of UK Prime Minister Tony Blair has published proposals for a city region-based system of local councils in England, which have attracted the support of government and opposition alike. The New Local Government Network was originally established in 1998 to encourage the new Labour government to bring about elected mayors as means to invigorate local democracy and to quicken the pace of modernisation in other areas.

The network's City Regions Commission was established earlier this year in response to the rejection by voters in the North East of the government's proposed elected assembly for the region. Instead, the commission examined the alternative case for city regions rather than the elected regional assemblies that have been Labour policy since the early 1990s. As well as a number of city leaders, the commission's membership also included Local Government Association Chairman Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, London Assembly Member John Biggs, historian Tristram Hunt and urban commentator Tony Travers of the London School of Economics.

To some extent, the commission were pushing at an open door, having quickly spotted an opportunity following the policy void created by the emphatic rejection of regional government by voters in the North East. With over a decade of momentum called to a sudden halt, Labour's attention had quickly turned to other models to address not only the democratic deficit in England created by the Scottish and Welsh devolved bodies but also the need to reconfigure the non-unitary pattern of local government left by the failed review of councils in the mid-1990s. As such, the notion of city regions quickly gained currency in policy circles around New Labour, with the IPPR's Centre for Cities also springing up in response.

Though the term city region has been in use among economists, planners and urbanists throughout the post-war period, in a UK context the term arrived with Derek Senior's Memorandum of Dissent against the Redcliffe-Maud Report in 1969, with Senior proposing a city regional framework instead of Redcliffe-Maud's proposals for a unitary system of local government and eight provincial councils.  In the 1974 reorganisation of local government by the Conservative government of Edward Heath, which dismissed the Redcliffe-Maud Report of its predecessor, the resulting two-tier system saw a partial city regional system emerge under the Metropolitan Counties, which were later abolished alongside the Greater London Council by Margaret Thatcher in 1986. Today, the vestiges of the late 1960s appetite for city regions remain in the Passenger Transport Authorities in the former metropolitan counties. Currently, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) has factored city regions into its workplan through its Core Cities Group and the Northern Way regeneration initiative, though this remains the stuff of civil servants rather than anything formal.

Having accepted this landscape and the need for reform, the City Regions Commission examined both existing models, such as the Greater Toronto Area Council, and how a British solution could be worked out. Competitiveness against European rivals is of interest to both the commission and the government, with this already driving much of the ODPM's agenda. The commission examined how city regions work elsewhere in Europe, looking at the Association of the Urban Region of Stuttgart and the Lille agglomeration.

The report's foreword comments that any solution must be rooted in British circumstances, building on existing arrangements rather than imposing any top-down model for uniform adoption. It explicitly rejects a "German urban federal solution", arguing that Britain's ancient local councils have historical liberties and do not share Europe's post-fascist experience of regionalism. Instead, the commission believes it is possible to graft alternative arrangements on different conurbations to reflect local circumstance – a Black Country 'Senate' of West Midlands local councils might wish to pursue a different road to Newcastle-Gateshead, for instance. The report also singles out Manchester, Liverpool and Bristol as leading cities in need of new arrangements to recognise both their economic role and civic aspirations.

In addition to allowing city regions to emerge from below in an asymmetrical fashion, the report calls for enabling legislation to pass powers over housing, planning and transport to the new bodies. Though asymmetrical in nature, the report argues for co-terminosity alongside existing bodies such as Learning and Skills Councils.  The need for upheaval through reorganisation or referendums to assent to establishment would be avoided through using existing authorities and mandates for their creation, argue the authors.

The fundamental consideration is the role of cities as the drivers of regional economies, with defined travel to work areas that also see cities as the centre of retail, leisure and cultural activities. The government has already recognised the economic case for more fiscal autonomy in this regard, though it does not want to comment further until its review of local finance is concluded. The IPPR's Centre for Cities has boosted the network's research in this area with its own studies of regional housing markets and the role of cities in this regard.  This alone guarantees a receptive audience for the proposals as housing market issues generally attract more media attention than local government.

City regions are expected to form a major strand of next year's local government white paper, with Communities Minister David Miliband throwing his weight behind the report and welcoming its contribution to the debate. David Cameron, the newly elected leader of the Conservative Party also welcomed the proposals, pointing out their appeal to Conservatives over unwanted regional government. Mr Cameron used his recent leadership campaign to show support for more elected mayors in English cities and recent policy initiatives by the party have moved in a more localist direction. Having already set up a review of its own the shadow the government's Lyons Inquiry into the future of local government, due to report next year, the commission's findings may yet find their way onto the statute book.

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