The future of England depends on a tale of two cities. It’s also a tale of two mayors. They both happen to be called Andy and they are leading what’s been called a “trailblazer” initiative in the hope that other cities might follow the 3.1m people in Greater Manchester and 4.3m around Birmingham in having more power over their own affairs. Those of us who live in Liverpool, Leeds, Bristol, Newcastle, Cambridge and other cities across the UK might also benefit because – having exhausted all other alternatives – a Westminster government at last appears to be thinking seriously about English devolution. They are actually doing something about it. For decades England has been the most centralised major country in Europe. Scotland, Wales and (on and off) Northern Ireland have their own parliaments while London has sucked in power, money and often talent too.
“Over-centralisation is a bad thing,” Greater Manchester’s directly-elected Labour mayor Andy Burnham tells me. He’s been giving evidence to the official covid inquiry and is sure that, with more powers for cities like Manchester, England could have coped better with contact tracing for the virus. “Saying ‘We’ll run everything from Whitehall’ was classic bad British governance. ‘We’ll create a brand new Test and Trace system and we’ll dump it on everybody’? It didn’t work. Call centres ringing people who never pick up the phone? [In Manchester] we were offering to do door-knocking contact tracing and” – he shakes his head in amazement – “they paid billions for a call centre!”
Burnham’s story is typical of big government in London wasting money when better solutions were available through trusting local people to sort out local problems. The evidence, Burnham says, is clear. Lack of real power for mayors in English cities outside the capital restricts innovation. It’s bad for business, health and democracy too. The challenges of coronavirus, working from home, the cost-of-living crisis and other economic shocks depleting the income of businesses in city centres means Burnham and his Conservative counterpart in the West Midlands, Andy Street, have been working together to turn some of the worst of times into the best of times. Both are infectiously optimistic. From his Birmingham office Andy Street tells me that for years – decades – there has been a lack of “joined-up” government. Mayors like him held out “the begging bowl” to disconnected parts of Westminster to fund inter-linked projects without any coherent system to ensure each part of the puzzle fitted together. Both Andys agree there was no malicious intent. It just didn’t work.
“We would say to central government,” Street recalls, “we’re bidding into this fund here, we’re bidding into a separate fund over here, but the join-up might not be there. The ‘begging bowl’ was randomly fragmented.”
The new powers for the two Andys include guaranteed long-term funding and the right to retain 100 per cent of business rates for ten years. That means both receive a single pot of money without Whitehall lecturing them about what to do with it. Under the current system, Burnham’s staff say, they have to bid for cash from – I’m not making this up – more than a hundred different funding streams. Having in future just one pot of money sounds like a massive outbreak of uncommon common sense. Andy Street was formerly one of Britain’s top business leaders – managing director of John Lewis – and he’s certain that when mayors are able to plan strategically it will multiply the effectiveness of the available money.
Under the current system, cities have to bid for cash from over a hundred different funding streams
“With the single pot, we think about catering to industries, the skills they need, what transport infrastructure investment is needed, so you get the multiplier. Transport investment multiplied with housing investment multiplied with skills investment. One overall approach to improve the economic outcome of the region. I do see it as really good news.”
Burnham adds that what is “so frustrating” is that after World War II the British did reinvent regional and city government – but not for England. For Germany.
“We deliberately put in place a structure that would not allow political power to over-concentrate in one place. We had a hand in creating probably the most regionally balanced and successful country in the world. It seems odd that we have struggled so much to get our own house in order.”
I tell Burnham that my wife’s family in Hamburg, Munich and Freiburg don’t feel the need to move to the German capital to get on. In Britain many of us – me included – felt we had to go to London for a better career.
“That’s me,” Burnham nods in agreement. “That’s my generation. When I graduated I came back here (to Manchester), tried to get a job in media and couldn’t. Thousands of people like me in that era realised that to get on in life you had to go south. Now Greater Manchester has hit a point where it isn’t the case anymore that if you stay, you’re lowering your career ambitions. There are jobs in our city region now that mean you can have as exciting a career prospect by staying as you can by leaving. Things are tipping a bit in our direction.”
Ninety miles away in Birmingham, Andy Street is from the same generation and adds his personal version of the same story.
“When I was eighteen, sitting in a pub with my friends in Birmingham, we all talked about going to London for our careers,” he tells me, but slowly that has turned around. Birmingham has started to see more net migration of young Londoners to the West Midlands. That, Street suggests, will be the story of the future, with talented young people drawn in by good jobs (especially in tech), cheaper living costs and – inevitably, like Manchester – by the nightlife in a great city. Andy Burnham says his recently-graduated son and girlfriend “tell me about the chat amongst their friends in London. The chatter is, ‘why do we want to live at the end of the Piccadilly Line? Why wouldn’t we have a flat for half the price in city-centre Manchester and have a graduate job?’”
What’s striking is that in a time of often mean-spirited political divisions at Westminster, Conservative Andy and Labour Andy are singing the same song. They both know that effective government in British cities is not new. It’s a positive British tradition. In Victorian times, Birmingham’s Liberal politician Joseph Chamberlain was himself a trailblazer. He revolutionised education, cleared slum housing, improved public health, provided clean water and treated sewage. Birmingham became the model for cities around the country and the world.
In a time of mean-spirited political divisions, Conservative Andy and Labour Andy are singing the same song
“This was the country of municipal leadership in the nineteenth century,” Andy Street agrees. “But for the best part of 100 years, power – in every sense – has been taken to London. Political power, economic power, the location of FTSE100 companies, where the universities are, all of those things, have been centralised. This country is a very uneven country,” but the new policy “is a decisive move the other way. It’s a reverse of a very long-term trend. We had a meeting of mayors from across the country yesterday,” Street says, “from Leeds, Liverpool, Bristol, Cambridge, Newcastle. And they are all enthusiastic that the West Midlands and Greater Manchester get on and make a success of this because they expect to be following. Politics can be obsessed with Birmingham against Manchester, Liverpool against Leeds, it’s not about that. It’s about all parts of the UK being better so the UK as a whole is better. And what’s held us back is a lopsided economy. That’s the notion of the trailblazer. We’ve got to prepare the ground for others to follow.”
“It’s getting exciting, now,” Burnham agrees, and then surprises me by suggesting the lessons go further than England. “I think it is increasingly pointing out the limitations of Welsh and Scottish devolution, particularly Scottish devolution. Power has been devolved but power has been also pulled up from the councils and the cities in Scotland. You know, Police Scotland, Fire Scotland [emergency services have both been centralised]. And to me that isn’t the right model.”
Burnham is correct in saying that power devolved to Scotland has, in an echo of Westminster, often been swallowed up by the Holyrood parliament in Edinburgh rather than devolved to Glasgow, Inverness, Dundee or Aberdeen. The new Scotland First Minister Hamza Yousaf may have to think hard about joined-up government, too. Then Andy Burnham explains why he was a few minutes late for our conversation.
“The reason I was late,” Burnham says, “I was on a call with the mayor of the Liverpool city region debating whether to set a green energy ambition for the northwest. ie could we be a net exporter of green energy rather than just becoming net zero in green energy? Could we create an export industry for the northwest of England? And when you start to imagine a world where independently combined authorities are starting to collaborate to set industrial ambitions, you then begin to get a feel for the possibility of a different England, don’t you?”
Yes, you do, I agree, getting caught up in the positive excitement of these two English devolutionaries. Many of us forget that London for years seemed in inexorable decline. The population peaked in the late 1930s just short of nine million. By 1981, two million Londoners had left to escape bad housing, pollution, woeful transport and failing old industries. There were violent inner-city riots. But by 2013, London had surpassed its record inter-war population and the capital and surrounding areas are now responsible for around a third of the UK’s GDP. What changed was power being devolved to Londoners: the first directly elected “metro” mayor, reorganised local government, bold infrastructure projects, including the Elizabeth line and the O2, plus Margaret Thatcher’s Big Bang shaking up London’s financial services sector. London’s subsequent success meant England did become lopsided towards the capital. Birmingham, Manchester and dozens of other cities lost out. Not any more.
“This is not Manchester saying sod everyone else,” Burnham says. “We don’t want to be the London of the north, or perceived to be like that. In that trailblazer conversation with Andy Street, (and other cities), we both said, ‘open book, we’ll tell you everything that we’re asking for and we’re asking for it so that you might be able to get it as well.’”
The two mayors’ efforts will be scrutinised by panels of local MPs from all parties. Both say that’s exactly how things should be, with Westminster-style partisan point-scoring put to one side.
“This deal has been agreed by all the local leaders and myself, cross party,” Andy Street says proudly. “Birmingham City Council, County Council, they’re all Labour-led councils. We’ve come together to put place before party. We have 28 MPs, fourteen Conservative, fourteen Labour, and cross-party support for devolution to the West Midlands. It’s quite striking, the level of agreement around this. And of course, in Manchester, a Labour mayor has done this deal with a Conservative government, with the support of all their local authorities. So what you’re actually seeing is an idea that is trumping party politics.”
Burnham agrees and pays tribute to the former Conservative minister and grandee Michael Heseltine who tried to set England’s cities free in this way 40 years ago. “Michael’s been such a supporter of what we’re trying to do,” he says, but the decades of inaction are “so frustrating, honestly.”
I suggest to both mayors that most citizens like the idea of solving problems rather than scoring partisan points. “I’ve always tried to work in that way,” Burnham says. “This is about place over party, isn’t it? This is what English devolution is adding to public life in the UK, because it is a very place-based perspective. And place is a unifying force, not a divisive force. Whatever people’s political views, they want to see Greater Manchester or the West Midlands succeed. If you take devolution at the national level, it still becomes tied up in party division. So I think there is something really important about this staying a cross-party, long-term, place-based approach. That’s what English devolution is doing. It’s making the country more functional.”
Functional government? Doing what works for the long term? Letting people take more control of where they live, work and have their roots? Wow. These radical devolutionary ideas really could catch on. In our difficult 2020s, maybe Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities predicted some of this, too: “It was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
The spring of hope, season of light? I’m going with that. So are the two Andys.
Gavin Esler’s new book Britain Is Better Than This is published by Head of Zeus in September