Free the cities to shape their destiny

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Scotland will vote next year on independence, with a vague offer of more devolved authority if it says No, while Wales is being offered a referendum on the power to vary income tax. Can any of this be used to prise open Whitehall’s centralised grip of England?

England reacted with barely a shrug to Prime Minister David Cameron’s offer to the Welsh government, which will also get borrowing powers and control of stamp duty and landfill tax. The strongest reaction was from the Core Cities Group, which represents Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield.

“What’s good enough for Wales is good enough for Manchester and the other English core cities,” said Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council. He added that Wales’s population is just over 3m and its economy equivalent to 4 per cent of England’s, whereas the core cities’ urban areas are home to 16m and account for 27 per cent of England’s economy. “It’s great to see Wales getting much needed powers that will help drive growth and jobs, but why aren’t English cities getting the same? Our view is that devolution to English cities is long overdue. With it, we can do more to boost jobs and growth for the whole of the UK.”

Boris Johnson, London mayor, has linked up with the core cities to seek control of revenues from all property taxes, such as stamp duty, council tax and business rates. So far there is little sign of success. The coalition government is allowing cities to retain some revenues through a series of “city deals”, but this could be withdrawn if targets are not met.

England’s problem is in part a lack of consensus on what, if anything, people want: an English parliament, regional government, citywide mayors? Since Labour’s failure to win support for regional devolution in a 2004 referendum in the northeast, cities have become the main hope for decentralisation.

The larger cities have made a decent job of regenerating themselves and deserve to shape their own destiny. You can quibble over whether it would exclude smaller cities, towns and counties from the benefit, but core cities seem the best lever available to achieve devolution.

London currency

Walter Gingery, a Financial Times reader from Seattle, suggests that giving London its own currency would do more for other English cities than devolution. “The ‘sterling zone’ confers on London the competitive advantage of an undervalued currency. In effect, Britain’s other cities subsidise London’s exports and penalise their own. This disparity has led to the hollowing of Britain’s economy.”

Mr Gingery argued that London exports bankruptcy and unemployment to the rest of the UK, mirroring Germany’s “malign effects” in the eurozone. “To compete with Germany, it is necessary to set the rest of Britain free from London, which belongs in its own league with New York, Hong Kong and Singapore. The last two already enjoy separate, independent currencies.”

This is another way of putting the case for London to become an independent city state, since it would require a central bank and governance institutions. It is unlikely to happen, but this is one of the better arguments I have heard.

Hollywood howlers

In the Hollywood fantasy epic, Thor: The Dark World, the superhero gets on a London Underground train at Charing Cross and is told, perplexingly, by a passenger he is three stops from Greenwich. “It’s intensely frustrating,” writes James O’Malley in the New Statesman, complaining of myriad filmic liberties taken with London’s geography.

This is mild by the standards of Hollywood’s history of misrepresenting Britain. Ben Affleck’s recent Oscar-winning film, Argo, claimed that British and New Zealand diplomats refused shelter to hostages in the 1979 US embassy siege in Tehran. They did not.

In the 2000 film, U-571, a German submarine is boarded in 1942 by disguised US Navy submariners seeking to capture her Enigma cipher machine. In reality, it was British personnel from HMS Bulldog who first captured a naval Enigma machine, months before the US entered the war. Tony Blair, prime minister, told the Commons the film was an “affront” to British sailors.

Such protests fall on deaf ears.

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