It was no surprise to note the reference by CBI’s Carolyn Fairburn to the opportunities opened up by City Deals in her address to the CBI Scotland annual dinner last week. Among the uncertainties and investment caution created by Brexit, the prospect of major investment through the emerging City Deals (or, as they are now more commonly labelled, City Region Deals) across Scotland represents a bright beacon of hope. Indeed Lord Dunlop (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Scotland Office) gave early assurance that Brexit would not put an end to the City Region Deals, with the message that it was now even more important that City Region Deals should progress.
Against that background, there has been a degree of impatience regarding the time which it seems to be taking for the details of the Edinburgh and South East Scotland (ESES) City Region Deal to be published.
What we do know, is that the scale of the ESES City Region Deal is highly ambitious – a £2billion investment from the six local authorities (City of Edinburgh Council, Fife Council, East Lothian Council, West Lothian Council, Midlothian Council, Scottish Borders Council); five universities; Scottish Government and UK Government; and, as always, with the expectation that it will be matched by a similar level of private sector investment. It remains to be seen, of course, whether the scale of that ambition will be supported by UK Government, or whether – as with the Aberdeen City Region Deal, the size of the Deal will ultimately be more modest.
In broad terms, the ESES City Region Deal will cover: Innovation hubs; infrastructure investment (transport & digital), a regional housing programme, and a culture and tourism programme – but, as noted above, the detail has yet to emerge.
Andrew Kerr, chief executive of City of Edinburgh Council, referred in the summer to starting a process over the autumn, involving “a conversation about where Edinburgh wants to be in 2050”. The start of a conversation is some way removed from the defined list of projects, each rigorously tested against anticipated economic impacts, which will be required to make the final case to Scottish and UK Governments – but the principle of putting strategy first (a luxury which was not available for Glasgow and Clyde Valley in their haste to grasp the window of opportunity for the first Scottish City Region Deal) is certainly not something I would take issue with.
At the end of the day, a City Region Deal is a long-term investment proposition, and at major scale. It makes sense to get the governance right (the decision in principle to establish a joint committee involving the participating local authorities has already been made, which in itself is a major step forward). And, equally, taking the time to agree a robust strategy that all participating authorities, the wider public sector partners, the further and higher education sector, the private sector, and third sector have bought into, is surely worth the effort. The comment by Andrew Kerr says it all: “...it’s a City Deal of six local authorities, five universities, three parts of government. What could possibly go wrong?”