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If you love our cities, let them go

The other day my daughter came back from university with a pierced eyebrow. It could have been considerably worse, I suppose, and I’ve come to think it rather suits her.

Of course, as a parent there’s always someone on hand to remind you that ‘if you love them, let them go’.

I noted a similar sense of patriarchal munificence when Ed Miliband recently promised to hand more responsibility to cities.

This was touted as the biggest devolution of power in England for a century, but let’s be clear: these are baby steps in the scheme of things.

Our cities have long since found their feet; they’re out in the big wide world; they’re raising little suburbs of their very own.

Mr Miliband’s plan to double the local growth fund to £4bn is paltry compared to Lord Heseltine’s recent No Stone Unturned report, which pinpointed £49bn that could be shifted from central government to the English regions.

“Politicians are not immune from the lesson that ‘if you love them you have to let them go’.”

One illustration of how far we are behind rivals: at the moment London keeps 7 per cent of the tax raised in the city - New York City gets to keep 50 per cent.

More powers for cities means more stability and certainty as local governments can plan over the long-term, rather than having to rely on the whims of Westminster.

Take, for example, Transport for London, the body responsible for the day-to-day to operation of the capital’s public transport.

TfL has to re-negotiate its budget every year – this is a hopeless system if you’re trying to plan projects that could last a decade.

City leaders know their own patch better than any Westminster politician; they know their own challenges and the infrastructure work that needs to be done.

In a world of limited finances, it’s also city leaders who are best placed to make the case locally that folk should stump up to help projects go ahead.

At London First we have repeatedly asked Westminster to consider the findings of the mayor’s recent London Finance Commission.

It recommended that a series of property taxes be devolved to London government - an arrangement that could also be tailored to other cities and regions.

Full devolution of all property taxes to London government – swapped pound for pound for existing grant so it’s not new money now - would still leave 88 per cent of all London’s taxes going to straight to the Treasury.

Politicians are not immune from the lesson that ‘if you love them you have to let them go’.  

Perhaps cities will go out and get the equivalent of an eye-brow piercing (or worse) that will cause the stern matriarchs of the Treasury to go all-a-quiver.

But those cities will learn and they will grow – and, who knows, those matriarchs might find they rather like the result.

Baroness Jo Valentine is chief executive of London First

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