Belfast's city deal explained

23 Nov 2017 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 24 Nov 2017

Thriving cities are the key to future prosperity: Pic, David Cantelli Unsplash

It was widely predicted by commentators that there would be no extra money for Northern Ireland in the budget. For once, and thankfully, they were wrong. 

Chancellor Philip Hammond announced a consultation on a city deal for Belfast. This could be far more significant than the extra £600 million Hammond pledged under the budget. However, there is a caveat – on page 57 of the official budget statement it reveals that negotiations on it can only start once we have an Executive in place.

We are therefore left, once again, with a tantalising opportunity, which for the moment, remains out of reach.

To briefly explain - City Deals are struck between central and local authorities. Their central purpose is to boost the economy of cities and their environs.  Local authorities work with the business community and the Third Sector in partnerships to ensure that optimal conditions are achieved for the region’s success. The role of the Third Sector is crucial. Stirling jumped to the head of the queue for Scottish deals in March of this year precisely because it put social innovation at the heart of its bid.

There are four principles underpinning city deals, which are that they

  • put cities in control of the economic opportunities and challenges they face as a city
  • work with a city’s wider metro area – encouraging deals across the wider economic area will increase the ‘scale of deal’, meaning City Deals will reach more people through a wider geographical reach
  • work across local enterprise and local authority boundaries, sectors, and professions – bringing together governments, cities, neighbouring authorities and local business leaders
  • give real power to city authorities so they can create economic growth

Critically central funding for them is outwith the Barnett formula and therefore genuine, additional money – and the sums involved are formidable. Glasgow, for example is getting a £1.13 billion infrastructure investment fund, which is estimated to deliver around 29,000 jobs in the city region and lever in an estimated £3.3 billion of private sector investment.

The deals are proving so successful that cities across England, Scotland and Wales are queueing round the block for them.

What is most significant about the announcement, which was also a commitment in the DUP/Tory confidence and supply agreement is the involvement of the DUP in supporting the concept.

When the restructuring of local authorities was first announced in Northern Ireland it was planned to devolve planning and regeneration powers to local authorities. Planning was duly transferred but to date regeneration remains the responsibility of the Department of Communities.

This was announced by the last Communities Minister, the DUP’s Paul Givan almost exactly a year ago, just before the Executive collapsed. He decided to retain the powers on the basis that the Programme for Government demanded a “joined up” approach to policy across Northern Ireland, and that the public didn’t care who was responsible for exercising the responsibility provided the work was done.

It remains to be seen how city deals here will be structured – but the basic principle is one of empowerment whereby local authorities are given all the tools required to transform their areas. That is not compatible with the centrist approach previously championed by Mr Givan.

Indeed, given the current political impasse and the apparent innate instability of central government it would seem wise for more powers, indeed the maximum possible to be devolved to local authorities who have continued to function through all our recent crises.

Local authorities are much derided and indeed not immune from error. Yet they have come a long way in recent years. Belfast whose debates in the dark old days sometimes descended into fisticuffs is a good example. Yes there are controversies and difficulties but by and large all parties work effectively together for the benefit of citizens.

If Stormont isn’t working, why not give more responsibility to those parts of government that are.

As to city deals all global evidence suggests that our economies are increasingly driven by cities. The more effectively a city is run, the better its environment and infrastructure, cultural offerings and education system, the more successful it will be.

Cities in England, Scotland and Wales have a head start on us – indeed we cannot even get to the starting block until we have an Executive. Elsewhere every urban conurbation appears to be cashing in. We have just one deal in prospect, much to the chagrin of the citizens of Derry and Strabane Council. This is yet another important reason why we need a government back. Time waits for no one. 


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