Don’t believe the myths: devolution deals are already about more than the big cities

Stockport is one of more than 30 smaller cities included in new devolution deals. Image: G-Man/Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve heard many different “I’m all for the devolution deals but…” arguments, across the country, at events or on Twitter. Of all of them, though, the one that appears to be gaining most traction since the EU referendum is that the agenda has been too focussed on the big cities. This, it’s implied, is to the detriment of devolving to and supporting small and medium sized towns and cities, and their rural hinterlands – many of which are now being referred to as “left behind Britain”.

Sadly for the proponents of this view, it doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. Let’s look just at the deals agreed for the seven big city regions so far: Greater Manchester, West of England, Liverpool City Region, North East, Sheffield City Region, Tees Valley and West Midlands.

Beyond the core city authorities like Manchester, Newcastle and Birmingham, these deals encompass over thirty smaller local authorities. To give the full list: Bolton, Bury, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford, Stockport, Tameside, Trafford, Wigan, Bath & North East Somerset, South Gloucestershire, St Helens, Sefton, Knowsley, Wirral, Halton, Durham, Sunderland, Doncaster, Rotherham, Barnsley, Bassetlaw, Chesterfield, Darlington, Hartlepool, Middlebrough, Redcar & Cleveland, Stockton-on-Tees, Wolverhampton, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull and Wallsall.

Once you include non-constituent members of some of the deals – those that will attend meetings, but not formally vote on decisions – that number swells further to include places like Warrington, Nuneaton and Telford.

Indeed, the areas covered by these deals alone are home to over 11m people – that’s more than the populations of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland combined.

Here, for ease of reference, is a map with the latest authorities included in each of the deals agreed to date, including those of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, and Norfolk and Suffolk.

It’s worth contrasting this with previous attempts from government to devolve powers and introduce mayoral government to England. City Deals round one and two, together with the mayoral referenda of the last Parliament, were explicitly focussed on single authority areas; and, initially at least, these did preference securing arrangements with the largest urban authorities.

The current devolution deals have, from the outset, explicitly sought to improve on these previous attempts by focussing on those areas with the biggest growth potential. They’ve also broadened out the scope of powers on offer, and the scale of area that those powers would cover, so as to better reflect the geography at which people actually live and work.

Devolution within England is therefore not focussed on big cities as such, but big city-regions. These take in a whole host of different settlements, from big urban centres, to neighbouring medium sized cities to smaller towns and villages. Indeed it’s clear from looking at the map above that, if anything, places have been pragmatic and inclusive when defining the geography of their mayoral deals: many resemble entire regions, rather than their immediate urban and suburban footprints.

Furthermore, the governance arrangements of these deals will ensure that all individual local authorities within the mayoral combined authority play important roles in terms of setting the strategic direction of the city-region – and when it comes to making important decisions over planning and investing in the drivers of growth.

There are a number of other deals that could yet be agreed – for example, the Leeds City Region and for the Solent area.

Critics are quite correct that this approach does not allow for the map of England to be filled in – for every part of the country to get a mayoral devolution deal of its own. But then, why should it? Do all settlements require the devolution of the same strategic powers, and are all places ready to receive them at the same time? Of course not.

Should those areas where mayoral devolution deals are not appropriate enjoy the benefits of other policy interventions, such as local growth deals or specific support to help deliver housing, infrastructure or skills improvements? Of course they should.

The current wave of devolution deals represent just the first step on the road to decentralising power in the UK. And they should only be viewed as one part of a broader strategy to boost economic growth and improve the life chances of places and people across the country.

But let’s be clear – mayoral devolution deals are already about much more than the big cities, and their successful delivery will benefit residents all across urban, suburban, and rural England.

Ben Harrison is director of communications at the Centre for Cities. This article was originally published on the think tank’s blog.


12 things we learned by reading every single National Rail timetable

Some departure boards, yesterday. Image: CC-BY-SA

A couple of weeks ago, someone on Twitter asked CityMetric’s editor about the longest possible UK train journey where the stations are all in progressive alphabetical order. Various people made suggestions, but I was intrigued as to what that definitive answer was. Helpfully, National Rail provides a 3,717 page document containing every single timetable in the country, so I got reading!

(Well, actually I let my computer read the raw data in a file provided by ATOC, the Association of Train Operating Companies. Apparently this ‘requires a good level of computer skills’, so I guess I can put that on my CV now.)

Here’s what I learned:

1) The record for stops in progressive alphabetical order within a single journey is: 10

The winner is the weekday 7.42am Arriva Trains Wales service from Bridgend to Aberdare, which stops at the following stations in sequence:

  • Barry, Barry Docks, Cadoxton, Cardiff Central, Cardiff Queen Street, Cathays, Llandaf, Radyr, Taffs Well, Trefforest

The second longest sequence possible – 8 – overlaps with this. It’s the 22:46pm from Cardiff Central to Treherbert, although at present it’s only scheduled to run from 9-12 April, so you’d better book now to avoid the rush. 

  • Cardiff Central, Cardiff Queen Street, Cathays, Llandaf, Radyr, Taffs Well, Trefforest, Trehafod

Not quite sure what you’ll actually be able to do when you get to Trehafod at half eleven. Maybe the Welsh Mining Experience at Rhondda Heritage Park could arrange a special late night event to celebrate.

Just one of the things that you probably won't be able to see in Trehafod. Image: Wikimedia/FruitMonkey.

There are 15 possible runs of 7 stations. They include:

  • Berwick Upon Tweed, Dunbar, Edinburgh, Haymarket, Inverkeithing, Kirkcaldy, Leuchars
  • Bidston, Birkenhead North, Birkenhead Park, Conway Park, Hamilton Square, James Street, Moorfields
  • Bedford, Flitwick, Harlington, Leagrave, Luton, St Albans City, St Pancras International

There is a chance for a bit of CONTROVERSY with the last one, as you could argue that the final station is actually called London St Pancras. But St Pancras International the ATOC data calls it, so if you disagree you should ring them up and shout very loudly about it, I bet they love it when stuff like that happens.

Alphabetical train journeys not exciting enough for you?

2) The longest sequence of stations with alliterative names: 5

There are two ways to do this:

  • Ladywell, Lewisham, London Bridge, London Waterloo (East), London Charing Cross – a sequence which is the end/beginning of a couple of routes in South East London.
  • Mills Hill, Moston, Manchester Victoria, Manchester Oxford Road, Manchester Piccadilly – from the middle of the Leeds-Manchester Airport route.

There are 20 ways to get a sequence of 4, and 117 for a sequence of 3, but there are no train stations in the UK beginning with Z so shut up you at the back there.

3) The longest sequence of stations with names of increasing length: 7

Two of these:

  • York, Leeds, Batley, Dewsbury, Huddersfield, Manchester Victoria, Manchester Oxford Road
  • Lewes, Glynde, Berwick, Polegate, Eastbourne, Hampden Park, Pevensey & Westham

4) The greatest number of stations you can stop at without changing trains: 50

On a veeeeery slow service that calls at every stop between Crewe and Cardiff Central over the course of 6hr20. Faster, albeit less comprehensive, trains are available.

But if you’re looking for a really long journey, that’s got nothing on:

5) The longest journey you can take on a single National Rail service: 13 hours and 58 minutes.

A sleeper service that leaves Inverness at 7.17pm, and arrives at London Euston at 9.15am the next morning. Curiously, the ATOC data appears to claim that it stops at Wembley European Freight Operations Centre, though sadly the National Rail website makes no mention of this once in a lifetime opportunity.

6) The shortest journey you can take on a National Rail service without getting off en route: 2 minutes.

Starting at Wrexham Central, and taking you all the way to Wrexham General, this service is in place for a few days in the last week of March.

7) The shortest complete journey as the crow flies: 0 miles

Because the origin station is the same as the terminating station, i.e. the journey is on a loop.

8) The longest unbroken journey as the crow flies: 505 miles

Taking you all the way from Aberdeen to Penzance – although opportunities to make it have become rarer. The only direct service in the current timetable departs at 8.20am on Saturday 24 March. It stops at 46 stations and takes 13 hours 20 minutes. Thankfully, a trolley service is available.

9) The shortest station names on the network have just 3 letters

Ash, Ayr, Ely, Lee, Lye, Ore, Par, Rye, Wem, and Wye.

There’s also I.B.M., serving an industrial site formerly owned by the tech firm, but the ATOC data includes those full stops so it's not quite as short. Compute that, Deep Blue, you chess twat.

10) The longest station name has 33 letters excluding spaces

Okay, I cheated on this and Googled it – the ATOC data only has space for 26 characters. But for completeness’ sake: it’s Rhoose Cardiff International Airport, with 33 letters.

No, I’m not counting that other, more infamous Welsh one, because it’s listed in the database as Llanfairpwll, which is what it is actually called.


This sign is a lie. Image: Cyberinsekt.

11) The highest platform number on the National Rail network is 22

Well, the highest platform number at which anything is currently scheduled to stop at, at least.

12) if yoU gAze lOng into an abYss the abySs alSo gazEs into yOu

Image: author's own.

“For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved”, said Thomas.

Ed Jefferson works for the internet and tweets as @edjeff.

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