Leader of Essex County Council Peter Martin talks to Central Lobby about City Limits, a report arguing that counties should be given the same powers, freedoms and flexibilities as cities under the Government’s City Deal scheme.
The Government announced in July that eight cities – Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle, Nottingham, Manchester and Sheffield – would be given devolved powers and support with projects to boost growth and jobs.You say the government is missing a trick by not providing county areas with the same freedoms and flexibilities given to the core cities. Why is this?
We fully support the Government’s City Deal initiative. The freedoms and powers it gives to cities will help stimulate growth and, ultimately, provide a boost to the national economy.
But our analysis suggests that county areas have at least as great a part to play in kick-starting economic recovery. Non-metropolitan England account for over half of England’s output, with the remainder being split 50:50 between London and the core cities. On average, a new job created in areas like Surrey, Buckinghamshire and Essex boosts output by around 40% more than the average job in areas such as Newcastle, Sheffield and Liverpool.
Counties also support highly specialised industrial clusters – many in key knowledge driven sector of the economy. They enjoy equal access to higher education, to ports, airports and so on. The characteristics that some claim mark cities out as deserving of special treatment are not, in fact, unique to cities – they can be found in counties too.
The report claims that targeting economic development policy towards cities could limit the potential for growth – what in your opinion does the government need to do to prevent this happening?
Both central and local government want the same thing – to improve the lives of our residents by creating a flourishing economy. We think that the government should look to devolve the powers to drive local economic growth to all areas that demonstrate the right capability and appetite – whether these are cities or not.
Localism – in its truest sense – is about devolving powers to the most appropriate level to tackle challenges. We, in Essex, know the key factors that limit growth across our areas. We are working to address these issues, but feel we could do so much more with the right devolved powers and freedoms. We can build a robust business case for delivering growth and jobs in Essex and increasing the contribution we make to the national economy.
If Essex was given these freedom and flexibilities how would it use them?
We are in discussions with our public and private sector partners about the kind of freedoms that would benefit Essex and the benefits we would expect these to bring.
Skills and transport are two critical areas and the city deals concluded so far have included some elements that we would certainly find attractive in Essex.
Perhaps the most obvious use of new powers would be the development of innovative financing arrangements to finance and unlock much needed infrastructure improvements.
We could look at TIF style schemes and over ways of recycling funding so it continues to support and grow our economy.
We know that investing in growth requires both local and national government to shoulder risks. We need to take on our share of the risk at local level. However, we are already showing our appetite for risk and innovation by taking forward one of the government’s four Whole Place Community Budgets. We hope the proposals we develop will help to stimulate growth in Essex and, in time, provide a blueprint for other areas to better meet the needs of businesses, investors and entrepreneurs.
Localism is a long held government belief, and following the reshuffle there are some new faces in the centre of government – do you have a message for them to help Essex and other county and non-metropolitan fully drive this forward?
As I said right at the start, this is about building on an existing Government’s initiative to ensure that it delivers maximum benefit for the country as a whole.
The reshuffle this week means this could be the ideal time for the Government to have a fresh look at the current City Deal scheme and how they can spread its benefit.
Our analysis will give them plenty of food for thought and we will be working with the Government to develop an approach that reflects our shared commitment to localism and to securing sustained economic growth.
City Limits can be found on the Essex County Council website.