Originally published in the BPF Annual Review 2016-17.
Our regional committees have continued to grow this year, welcoming local and combined authorities, the Homes & Communities Agency, Transport for the North, and the Government Property Unit to our forums.
With the Industrial Strategy firmly focused on regional growth, we expect another packed year of engagement with decision-makers across the country and to continue to help central government understand the nuances of the regional markets.
The result of the EU referendum last June sent shockwaves across the country, and its impact was discussed at BPF regional committees soon after. In addition to the obvious questions around the future of many regional projects benefitting from EU funding, many wondered about the extent to which the Osborne-championed devolution agenda would manage to survive as Theresa May sought to distance herself from the priorities of her predecessors.
While the government’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ rhetoric may have quietened, enthusiasm for balanced regional growth has not. Whether focusing on the Midlands Engine or encouraging a broader approach, the government has continued to emphasise the opportunities available to those regions willing to take steps increase productivity and improve their economies. This is likely to continue throughout the lifetime of this government, particularly with Greg Clark remaining as Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and continuing to strongly champion the approach.
The election of six “metro mayors” in May were the culmination of many devolution deals struck in recent years, and provided much closer – and interesting – results than expected. Tim Bowles won the West of England for the Conservatives, and Steve Rotherham (Labour) took Liverpool City Region in a convincing win.
Then came the shock: Ben Houchen emerged as the victorious – and Conservative – candidate in Tees Valley, a region dominated by Labour MPs and councillors. Andy Burnham winning Greater Manchester with a significant majority for Labour came as no surprise, while the West Midlands competition was far closer – Andy Street came out on top in a narrow victory for the Conservatives. Cambridgeshire and Peterborough was the last region to announce its winner, with James Palmer (Conservative) winning on second preferences.
The fact that four of the six new mayors are Conservative may lead to an even stronger renewal of interest from government in the potential of combined authorities, as they seek to solidify support across the country. Housing and skills emerged as priorities for all new mayors during their campaigns, and we will be engaging with them on these in the coming year as well as other priorities for real estate – the ability of combined authorities to attract investment; local and regional planning issues; and the funding of long-term infrastructure projects.
We were disappointed not to see the reappearance of the option for local authorities to retain 100% of locally-collected business rates that formed part of the Local Government (Finance) Bill, which was making its way through Parliament before the general election. This will need to be reintroduced next session if the promised powers are to be implemented.
As is the norm nowadays, some things remain unclear. Despite this, the interest from domestic and international investors in the regions remains strong, and the role of the new mayors could prove a game-changer. We look forward to working with them, and our membership across the country, to ensure the regional markets continue to flourish.