Why City Deals are the best bit in the Tory/DUP pact

30 Jun 2017 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 30 Jun 2017

Glasgow - got more than a billion. Picture: Unsplash

The Conservative/DUP deal has been much dissected and analysed. Yet the one clause with the most transformative potential has been largely ignored. 

It commits the UK government to “work towards a comprehensive and ambitious set of city deals across Northern Ireland.”

This has not been pounced on by critics in the rest of the UK, presumably because city deals exist outwith the Barnett Formula and are available in England, Wales and Scotland, but not here. To introduce them would therefore be to level the playing field rather than to grant a special status to Northern Ireland.

They’ve not been picked up here, presumably because most people don’t have a clue what they are and also because they are one for the future, and no monetary value has been put on them.

This is a pity for several reasons not least because it should be of enormous interest to the third sector on account of the great economic benefits they can bring. The sector is playing a prominent role in extant city deals in Great Britain - assisting with, for example, boosting workforce employability.

City deals are also unlike the benefits charted in our companion piece this week They have the following advantages:

They do not afford Northern Ireland any special status, therefore many millions can be pumped into our economy without any legitimate complaint from politicians in Wales, Scotland or England

Because they are not measured within the Barnett Formula they do not skew our public subvention figures any further.

They are not dependent on an unstable Executive and Assembly as monies are administered by the cities themselves.

And because of that they would have the potential to be awarded without prejudice to whatever political arrangement we end up with here.

City Deals are based on four core principles - to:

  • 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

The sums involved are vast. Just look at a few of those struck outside England.

Glasgow 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. There are similar arrangements in place for both Cardiff and Swansea.

For Aberdeen, the UK Government and Scottish Government are jointly investing up to £250m whilst Aberdeen City Council, Aberdeenshire Council and local partners are committed to investing up to £44m over the next decade

To date not a single penny has been received by cities in Northern Ireland, but just imagine the transformative effect of that scale of investment. Glasgow alone has had a cash injection not far off the total brokered to date by the DUP.

City deals could very well prove to be the biggest benefit of all to flow from the Tory/DUP arrangement.

The problem for Northern Ireland to date has been the reluctance to give cities the powers they would require in order to make a city deal a viable proposition.

Ironically one of the last acts of the then Communities Minister Paul Givan before the collapse of the last administration was to withhold regeneration powers from local authorities reserving them for his own department.

By doing so he argued that the new Programme for Government required a more “joined up” co-ordinated approach to regeneration across Northern Ireland and that citizens didn’t care whether improvements would be carried out by the local council or central government so long as they happened.

Cynics would claim that the decision was at least partly the result of a power grab by civil servants wanting to reserve authorities for themselves rather than devolving them to local authority officials.

Whatever the motivation it has had the unintended consequence of reserving vital powers to an entity that isn’t functioning instead of transferring them to entities that are.

This may also be why the DUP/Conservative deal did not make more of city deals when it would have taken some of the heat out of criticism if it had.

Here is the relevant clause in full: “The UK government is committed to working with the Executive and other stakeholders to work towards a comprehensive and ambitious set of city deals across Northern Ireland to boost investment and help unlock the full potential of Northern Ireland. We will also work towards a limited number of Enterprise Zones, subject to proposals demonstrating good value for money.”

It is curious why the agreement creates a dependency around “working with the Executive” in order to develop city deals. Perhaps the parties involved were very confident that a new power sharing agreement would be struck very quickly. The chances of that are receding and it will be interesting to see if and when it re-surfaces whether any such talks can deliver on city deals before the tottering Westminster government falls after which the deal will no longer hold.

The fact that the DUP now embraces City Deals is very good news. It will presumably want to transfer appropriate powers to local administrations when and if a new Executive is formed. The only pity is that this was not given more immediate priority. 

Join the Conversation...

We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Join us on Twitter and join the conversation today.

Join Our Newsletter

Get the latest edition of ScopeNI delivered to your inbox.