In the closing days of the Johnson administration, Levelling Up Secretary Greg Clark was keen to get the East Midlands devolution deal signed. The deal is a first of its kind. The ‘Mayoral Combined County Authority’ would bring together the unitary authorities of the cities of Derby and Nottingham, and their surrounding counties, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. Its delivery is conditional on the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill being passed, and a public consultation planned for later this year.
East Midlands devolution deal
The four leaders of these councils have hailed the news as a great leap forward. But there is concern elsewhere that the money does not live up to the task. The £1.14bn investment fund is spread over 30 years, amounting only to £38mn per year. That is less than what has been allocated to York and North Yorkshire, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, and Tees Valley. Unison regional secretary Chris Jenkinson slams it as “crumbs off a rich man’s table”.
There are also issues with the geography of the deal. This deal does not cover the entire East Midlands region, particularly Leicester and Leicestershire, but also Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, and Rutland. This means that assets like the East Midlands Airport, in Leicestershire, will not be covered by this combined authority. Whilst Labour-dominated Leicester City Council’s directly-elected Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby sees the devolution plan as “daft”, Derbyshire council leader Barry Lewis said last month that the “door is being left ajar” for Leicester and Leicestershire to join.
The imperfect geography of the deal, Graph by ONS Geography Open Data, map created by author with Flourish, free for use
The course of true devolution never did run smooth. Geographies, civic identities and political personalities are complex and overlapping puzzle pieces. Sometimes there is a stronger history of cross-borough cooperation (see Greater Manchester). Sometimes competing local identities conflict with economic sense and conurbations (see Tyne and Wear). But the rivals of Nottingham and Derby have nonetheless come together for this deal, which with or without Leicester(shire), makes geographic sense.
The cities of Nottingham and Derby are only 14 miles from one another. The HS2 East Midlands Hub at Toton, scrapped in November 2021, would have sat between the two cities and, if revisited by the incoming administration, may provide a springboard to build greater connectivity in the region and attract serious investment, boosting productivity and jobs. Whilst Nottingham already has a tram network, the new deal could see, in the long term, the delivery of a mass transit system across the two cities and the huge built-up area across the counties. This would help make the region a real economic powerhouse.
The area does already have great assets, with huge employers like Rolls Royce, Toyota, Boots, E.On and Bombardier. It also has three universities, 2.2 million residents and is accessible to and from the West Midlands, London, and South Yorkshire. What it has lacked so far is the institutional capital across the local geographies to tie together all of its assets.
If this deal goes through and proper powers are given to the area, Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire can become a powerful force to be reckoned with.