Greater Manchester is often cited as an extreme example of a city in which planning boundaries are ludicrously out of sync with the functioning economic area. Four-fifths of the conurbation's population live outside the Manchester City Council area. Ten different councils manage planning for the city-region. Even the city centre is split, with the Salford-Manchester boundary running right through it.
Without some sort of coordination, the chances for coherent planning in the conurbation would be slim. Thankfully, the ten authorities have a long history of voluntary cooperation. In 2009, they set up the country's first statutory combined urban authority. This was initially established to handle transport, economic development and regeneration.
But last month, it took on a new planning role, publishing for consultation what would be the first English statutory development plan for a city-region outside London since then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher abolished the metropolitan counties in 1986. In doing so, the Greater Manchester councils are beating a path that other urban authorities may be increasingly encouraged to take as the government seeks a devolutionary settlement for England.
The morning after Scottish voters rejected independence last month, Prime Minister David Cameron promised that draft legislation to devolve tax, spending and welfare powers to Edinburgh would be published by January.
At the same time, he said the government would draw up proposals in the same timeframe to allow issues pertaining only to England, Wales or Northern Ireland to be voted on solely by MPs from the respective countries. He also called for "wider civic engagement about how to improve governance in our United Kingdom, including how to empower our great cities".
The Prime Minister gave no clues about how he envisaged England's core cities being further empowered. But the government's philosophy on what local authorities and their business partners must offer to secure extra responsibility and funding is already well established. Places that want to benefit from City Deals and the £2 billion a year Local Growth Fund are expected to commit to sub-regional joint working.
Cameron's adviser on economic development, Lord Heseltine, supports combined authorities, and wants all two-tier English councils outside London to move towards unitary status. It is also Labour's policy to offer economic powers in return for agreements to strengthen local governance by combining authorities or simplifying local enterprise partnership structures. If English cities are to be offered further devolved powers, it seems likely that local authorities will be expected to agree more formal joint working structures and even mergers. The potential for strategic plans for city-regions, sub-regions and counties is clear.
Co-ordinated vision vies with transparency fears
Some experts are enthused by the prospect. Martin Curtis, associate director at public engagement firm Curtin & Co, sees "a scenario in which a more professional base of councillors is better able to understand the implications of purely parochial decisions, and provide a local plan across a wider geography".
Catriona Riddell, strategic planning convenor at the Planning Officers Society, which represents council planners, says statutory strategic planning powers for combined authorities would mean "a much more coordinated approach to spatial, economic and infrastructure priorities and delivery". But some are more cautious. Mark Tewdwr-Jones, professor of town planning at Newcastle University, warns that city-regional bodies might not look very democratic unless they are "formally elected organisations with scrutiny bodies as in London".
There is wide agreement that moves to devolve resources and enable the production of more sub-regional plans would need to be balanced by mechanisms that ensure national priorities can still be addressed and wealth redistributed across the country. "Redistribution is important," affirms Paul Swinney, senior economist at the Centre for Cities think-tank. "You don't want everything to go to the most powerful places. For fairness, certain projects need to be nationally led," he says.
Tewdwr-Jones agrees. "The irony is that great devolution of planning issues to city-regions would require a closer relationship in planning terms to national agendas, particularly infrastructure spending," he says. Birmingham City University professor of spatial planning Alister Scott adds: "There would be a need for a national spatial plan."
The Prime Minister's statement about empowering cities was carefully worded, calling for debate but making no commitments. How likely is it that devolution in England would take the form discussed? And would devolution to a local level deal with English concerns about a better devolutionary deal for Scots? Unlike the proposed "English votes for English laws", it would not directly address Scottish MPs' continued influence on English affairs while English MPs have no say north of the border.
Nonetheless, several commentators think devolution from central to local government might actually be more effective at tackling concerns in England's outlying regions than banning Scottish MPs from voting on English matters. Centre for Cities research has shown that the further you get from Westminster, the more likely people are to feel that political decisions are too focused on London, and the less likely local people are to agree that Whitehall and Parliament are responsive to their issues.
Devolution could ensure engaged electorate
John Tomaney, professor of urban and regional planning at University College London, asks whether "English votes for English laws" would alter this. "To a northern city, an English parliament would feel pretty much like what you have now, but even more dominated by a southern, Conservative sensibility," he says. By contrast, he argues that devolution of powers and resources to cities could "reconnect people to politics at a scale they understand".
Riddell agrees, suggesting that such a move could help drive up the calibre of local politicians and improve voter engagement. "One of the big lessons of the referendum in Scotland is that, if we want more participatory democracy, we have to give the electorate something worth participating in," she says. "Some form of devolution could provide that."
Some observers are sceptical about whether the Prime Minister would willingly boost the powers of big cities that are mostly run by his opponents. But Swinney claims that the Scottish referendum has altered the political climate. "It has become more difficult for the Treasury to say no to city-regions on devolution," he says. He accepts that local political tensions may sometimes make it hard for authorities to come together in the way the government wants. But he dismisses the idea that this is insuperable. "It all comes down to what the government offers," he says. "If the cost of putting differences aside is large, then the benefit has got to be larger."
Call for counties' powers to match those of cities
So far, Cameron has talked only of devolution to cities, prompting complaints from county councils that they too should be eligible for additional powers. Labour proposes powers for counties as well as city-regions. "I can't see the government being allowed to continue to devolve powers to cities without some of the other parts of England asking for the same," says Riddell. "You need an approach that offers all parts of the country some devolved powers to address strategic issues, including planning."
There could also be implications for planning if "English votes for English laws" are introduced. Tomaney fears that planning policy might become more influenced by the priorities of MPs from the South East of England. "To some extent they are already, such as with the protection of the green belt. You could see that being further entrenched."
He also fears an increased London and South East bias on facilities funding decisions. "If you look at the infrastructure spending going into London," he says, "that reflects a certain prevailing view about the importance of the economy in London and the South East. There is a countervailing force in the presence of Scottish and Welsh MPs. But if you removed those, northern cities might feel that their voices seemed even more diluted in the debates."
Curtis warns of a scenario in which a UK government is unable to alter planning laws in England because it lacks a majority of English MPs. "This matters for anyone involved in planning because accelerating the growth agenda means legislative change is going to be needed," he says. It also raises the prospect of a UK government powerless to enact an English national plan to guide sub-regional plans. However, other commentators point out that parliaments in which the UK government does not have a majority of English MPs are rare.
Either way, the devolution agenda clearly has potential to change planning in England. Where Greater Manchester is leading, many may follow.