I wonder if George Osborne reads much modern history? I’m not not at all impressed by his grandiose plans for city devolution, outlined earlier this week and was struck by the following passage I stumbled upon this morning when finishing off a fascinating book by P D James, Talking About Detective Fiction:
In the Golden Age, police forces were not yet integrated into the forty-two large forces of today, and major cities and their county were seperately policed. This gave opportunities for productive rivalry as each strove to be more efficient, but the separation was economically expensive and could cause difficulties in co-operation and communication. (p146)
James wasn’t writing as an economic historian but she lived a long and observant life. This passage grabby my attention because I fear that while there may be an initial burst of benefits, while the new city-states attend to polishing their appearance, in the long-term it must inevitably turn out to be more expensive, with each needing greater local management capability, and create communication barriers between jurisdiction.
Also, I think it travels in the opposite direction from a fairer society, increasing what is referred to as the postcode lottery. City A might spend more on policing and bring down crime but, if you get ill, you would be better living in City B, which has chosen instead to invest in health care. Furthermore, how do you determine a fair rate of income for each city? From a chart at the bottom of the BBC report linked to above, London has a massively higher economic output per capita than any of the other UK cities mentioned but all of them have a civic responsibility to provide the same basic provisions. What about the countryside? Who looks after the areas that fall outside the major conurbations and how do they get fair treatment?
I think it would pay Mr Osbourne and his colleagues to look back a bit further for the value of previous experience and to look out a bit broader for the whole range of the population that they and their “compassionate conservatism” are responsible for over the next five years. I have to say that it leaves me almost tempted to move to Scotland before the borders close!