Crossing LED and devolution borders…
In this episode of the LED Confidential podcast, David and Mike review the UK's 2023 Spring Budget and how it could affect local economic development and devolution. They discuss the prospect of single financial settlements for the Greater Manchester and West Midlands combined authorities, tourist taxes, and Britain Remade's Powerbook recommendations for accelerating the delivery of energy infrastructure.
The transition from March to April is associated with moving from Winter to Spring, the clocks going forward, and the closure of one and commencement of a new financial year. And in some senses, our review considers how far the Budget crossed some of the boundaries that have typically restricted local economic development (LED) and devolution in recent years.
Probably the standout announcement from the Budget for LED in England is the prospect of single financial settlements for advanced Combined Authorities (CAs) from 2025 – of which the ‘trailblazers will be Greater Manchester (GMCA) and West Midlands (WMCA). The jury is out on whether these allocations will be contractual, departmentally micro-managed, local field administration of national priorities, or whether they will give local and regional leadership teams substantial powers and freedoms to enable transformation of their places and communities in new and novel ways. However, the potential to cross that border makes delivery of a single settlement platform crucial work for GM, WM and other ambitious local leadership teams – also in devolved nations – over the coming period.
Yet the Budget also demonstrates that government’s propensity for ‘small ticket’, often competitive, area-based initiatives will be a hard habit to kick. 12 Investment Zones, 20 Levelling Up Partnerships, reconfirmation of a competitive Levelling Up Fund (LUF) R3, among others, suggests that the balance between devolved single settlements and top-down modestly-resourced funding programmes will be a continuing tension for many years to come.
Interestingly, our two other border crossings came largely without the budget. The introduction of the Tourist Tax in Greater Manchester, notwithstanding its modest size, the prescribed usages to which the tax will be put, and the institutional wrapping of a Tourism Business Improvement District (BID), raises the spectre of fiscal devolution in LED and devolution agendas. Like the trailblazer single financial settlements, it’s a starting point for a bigger conversation that the Budget – in its deferment of business rates and local government finance reforms – suggests will be had post general election.
Finally, we turned our attention to the UKs pitiful track record of delivering major infrastructure investment speedily and effectively, and the new ‘Powerbook’ report by Britain Remade that tackles the issue. We discuss its recommendations for halving the time taken to complete major energy infrastructure projects. These focus on reforming the process for approving projects (such as consultation and environmental impact studies) which in the case of offshore windfarms, currently account for over 80% of their 12-year delivery timeframe. The Budget tasked the National Infrastructure Commission with looking afresh at some of the planning dimensions, and the UK Infrastructure Bank at some of the financing issues.
Those of us who cross many international borders for travel or for trading, know this can be a relatively seamless experience, or one fraught with bureaucratic complexity and delay. This holiday weekend seems to illustrate how Government can massively increase border crossing uncertainties, even if as an unintended consequence of other decisions. If our March review suggests anything, it is that LED and placemaking policy developers and practitioners need to do the work to make the border crossings suggested so tantalisingly in the Budget a seamless reality for the next government and Spending Review.