Places that haven’t secured a devolution deal may have to wait until 2020

Who's that guy on the right? Bit familiar. Nope, can't place him. Image: Getty.

In the last few years of George Osborne’s time in government, it was a fairly safe bet that any major speech by the chancellor would bring significant announcements on the devolution agenda. His last budget in March, for example, included new devolution deals for the West of England and Solent city regions; and the key moment of his final speech to Conservative Party Conference as chancellor brought the landmark announcement on the devolution of business rates.

However, predictions for the first Autumn Statement under Theresa May’s still relatively new administration were harder to make. While the new chancellor Philip Hammond had made it clear that Britain has “passed a tipping point in devolution”, it remained to be seen whether his enthusiasm for the devolution agenda would match that of his predecessor.

What did seem certain, however, was that this Autumn Statement was likely to mark the cut-off point for any places hoping to secure and implement devolution deals in the foreseeable future. Here are four reasons why:

1. Time constraints

Electoral Commission guidance on the metro mayor elections stipulates that legislation for new devolution deals which include a mayor should be introduced in Parliament at least six months before elections take place. But with the first metro mayor elections scheduled for May 2017, places currently without a deal are running out of time to secure one in time to meet the Commission’s deadline.

And with the second mayoral elections due to take place in 2020 (to bring them in line with London’s mayoral elections), it’s unlikely that the government would countenance the idea of holding separate mayoral elections before that point (in 2018, for example) for places which fail to agree a deal for next year. A two year term would not give new mayors nearly enough time to build their institutions, raise their profile, and demonstrate results to voters before second elections in 2020. Indeed, this will be a difficult enough job for the 2017 cohort of mayors in the three years they have in office.

2. The government’s commitment to devolution beyond current deals is unclear

While the government has emphasised its commitment to the existing devolution deals for major city-regions, it has shown little indication that it will pursue more deals for other places, or that it is open to renegotiating the terms of current deals.

When local leaders in the North East failed to reach agreement on how to progress with their deal in September, the government did not step in to salvage the agreement – instead telling local leaders that the £900m deal they turned down in September was now “off the table”. While that deal may be resurrected on a smaller geographical basis and for a smaller financial settlement, it won’t be as a result of active government intervention.

Beyond 2017 the government’s devolution priorities, if they have any, are as likely to be about doubling down on places with established deals such as Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, as they will about extending devolution deals to a whole raft of new places. Andrew Percy, the Northern Powerhouse Minister, has already said that a greater share of Local Growth Funding will be allocated to those places with a mayor than those without.

This doubling down approach is even more likely if the Conservatives win a couple of the mayoral contests, such as the West Midlands and West of England.


3. Other issues will consume the government’s attention

With Brexit negotiations likely to drag on for the next two years at least, and the current business secretary Greg Clark (who has been pivotal in driving the devolution agenda) now focused on delivering the government’s new industrial strategy, the reality is that devolution will come some way down the government’s priorities list in comparison. Places which hope to open negotiations on a new or revised deal are therefore likely to be disappointed.

4. Leaders in many places don’t want a devolution deal on the government’s terms

Communities secretary Sajid Javid has been clear that in order for places to gain a devolution deal, they will need to introduce a metro mayor. This proved the sticking point for local leaders in the North East, and in recent weeks has also led to the collapse of tentative agreements for places such as Greater Lincoln and Norfolk and Suffolk. It is also likely to deter leaders in other parts of the country from putting forward proposals for a deal in their area.

So while cities with nothing confirmed should continue to try to work with government to get deals in place, it is unlikely they will be able to secure anything that matches those deals already agreed before 2020.

Simon Jeffrey is an external affairs and research office at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

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Space for 8,000 new homes, most of them affordable... Why it's time to demolish Buckingham Palace

Get a lovely new housing estate, there. Image: Getty.

Scene: a council meeting.

Councillor 1: They say it’s going to cost £369m to repair and bring up to modern standards.

Councillor 2: £369m? Lambeth balked at paying just £14m to repair Cressingham Gardens. They said they’d rather knock it down and start again.

Councillor 1: Then we’re agreed? We knock Buckingham Palace down and build new housing there instead.

Obviously this would never happen. For a start, Buckingham Palace is Grade I listed, but… just imagine. Imagine if refurbishment costs were deemed disproportionate and, like many council estates before it, the palace was marked for “regeneration”.

State events transfer to Kensington Palace, St James’s and Windsor. The Crown Estate is persuaded, as good PR, to sell the land at a nominal fee to City Hall or a housing association. What could we build on roughly 21 hectares of land, within walking distance of transport and green space?

The area’s a conservation zone (Westminster Council’s Royal Parks conservation area, to be exact), so modernist towers are out. Pete Redman, a housing policy and research consultant at TradeRisks, calculates that the site could provide “parks, plazas, offices, cafes and 8,000 new dwellings without overlooking the top floor restaurant of the London Hilton Park Lane”.

Now, the Hilton is 100m tall, and we doubt Westminster’s planning committee would go anywhere near that. To get 8,000 homes, you need a density of 380 u/ha (units per hectare), which is pretty high, but still within the range permitted by City Hall, whose density matrix allows up to 405 u/ha (though they’d be one or two bedroom flats at this density) in an area with good public transport links. We can all agree that Buckingham Palace is excellently connected.

So what could the development look like? Lewisham Gateway is achieving a density of 350u/ha with blocks between eight and 25 storeys. On the other hand, Notting Hill Housing’s Micawber Street development manages the same density with mansion blocks and mews houses, no more than seven storeys high. It’s also a relatively small site, and so doesn’t take into account the impact of streets and public space.

Bermondsey Spa might be a better comparison. That achieves a density of 333u/ha over an area slightly larger than Lewisham Gateway (but still one-tenth of the Buckingham Palace site), with no buildings higher than 10 storeys.

The Buck House project seems perfect for the Create Streets model, which advocates terraced streets over multi-storey buildings. Director Nicholas Boys Smith, while not enthusiastic about bulldozing the palace, cites areas of London with existing high densities that we think of as being idyllic neighbourhoods: Pimlico (about 175u/ha) or Ladbroke Grove (about 230u/ha).


“You can get to very high densities with narrow streets and medium rise buildings,” he says. “Pimlico is four to six storeys, though of course the number of units depends on the size of the homes. The point is to develop a masterplan that sets the parameters of what’s acceptable first – how wide the streets are, types of open space, pedestrian only areas – before you get to the homes.”

Boys Smith goes on to talk about the importance of working collaboratively with the community before embarking on a design. In this scenario, there is no existing community – but it should be possible to identify potential future residents. Remember, in our fantasy the Crown Estate has been guilt-tripped into handing over the land for a song, which means it’s feasible for a housing association to develop the area and keep properties genuinely affordable.

Westminster Council estimates it needs an additional 5,600 social rented homes a year to meet demand. It has a waiting list of 5,500 households in immediate need, and knows of another 20,000 which can’t afford market rents. Even if we accepted a density level similar to Ladbroke Grove, that’s 4,830 homes where Buckingham Palace currently stands. A Bermondsey Spa-style density would generate nearly 7,000 homes.

There’s precedent for affordability, too. To take one example, the Peabody Trust is able to build genuinely affordable homes in part because local authorities give it land. In a Peabody development in Kensington and Chelsea, only 25 per cent of homes were sold on the open market. Similarly, 30 per cent of all L&Q’s new starts in 2016 were for commercial sale.

In other words, this development wouldn’t need to be all luxury flats with a few token affordable homes thrown in.

A kindly soul within City Hall did some rough and ready sums based on the figure of 8,000 homes, and reckoned that perhaps 1,500 would have to be sold to cover demolition and construction costs, which would leave around 80 per cent affordable. And putting the development in the hands of a housing association, financed through sales – at, let’s remember, Mayfair prices – should keep rents based on salaries rather than market rates.

Now, if we can just persuade Historic England to ditch that pesky Grade I listing. After all, the Queen actually prefers Windsor Castle…

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