A common trope for political commentators covering party conferences is to say that there were two conferences taking place simultaneously – the speeches made at the podium, and the often different topics dominating debates elsewhere at conference.
In Birmingham over the past week, for example, the optimistic speeches from Theresa May and her cabinet were in contrast to the often frenzied fringe debates about Brexit, how to make the case for free-markets and the future of the party. Similarly, at Labour conference in Liverpool, the enthusiasm for the leadership and its radical ideas in the conference hall was often at odds with grumblings from other parts of the party in fringe events.
From a cities perspective, there definitely was a third conference taking place at both party conferences: with UK city leaders from both parties setting out the challenges and opportunities their places face, and their concerns about Brexit and the national political gridlock it has created.
Optimism among city leaders – but also frustration
Among both Labour and Conservative city leaders, there was a clear sense of achievement at the progress they’re making, and both optimism and pragmatism about their ability to deliver for their place in the coming years. Yet there was also frustration – that despite warm words from their respective party leadership and the government about the importance of cities, there has been a real slowing of progress and a lack of political focus on the urban agenda over the last two years.
At our Labour conference fringe event, Greater Manchester metro mayor Andy Burnham spoke of his confidence of delivering his pledge to eradicate homelessness in the city region by the end of 2020 and outlined ambitious plans to transform cycling and walking accessibility. Marvin Rees, mayor of Bristol, highlighted the work he is doing to extend inclusivity in the city and to tackle educational inequalities. And Steve Rotheram, metro mayor of Liverpool City Region, set out important plans to tackle the city regions skills gaps and to increase apprenticeships take-up.
But the Labour mayors also spoke of their frustrations that the Government had failed to uphold its side of the devolution deals, particularly on skills and transport. They also expressed disappointment at the lack of attention from the Labour leadership on urban issues (as reflected by the fact that none of the metro mayors was given an opportunity to speak from the platform this year).
Similarly, at Tory conference, the party’s metro mayors were brimming with optimism about progress so far, and what they hoped to achieve over the next few years. West Midlands metro mayor Andy Street was everywhere extolling the practical benefits of devolution – for example, in attracting the Commonwealth Games to the region, and in launching its 5G pilot. He also argued that it is a means to address both the political and economic challenges posed by Brexit. James Palmer, metro mayor in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, spoke at our fringe of the importance of city leaders as ambassadors and representatives of their places, especially in terms of attracting jobs and investment.
But again, frustration was evident among the Conservative metro mayors at the lack of engagement and focus from Westminster. Ben Houchen, metro mayor for Tees Valley, expressed disappointment that the Department for Education has been less co-operative than he’d hoped about his plans for improving education outcomes in the city region, while James Palmer was frustrated at the Government’s lack of engagement on his proposals to finance his transport plans for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.
Commonality of vision and purpose among urban leaders
The mayors were speaking at different events at different party conferences, yet the issues they were concerned with were much the same: how to build the homes their residents need, how to provide enough buses for commuters in their city regions, how to ensure residents can breathe clean air.
In this sense, the UK’s city leaders are moving towards the bipartisanship seen in other countries such as the US – where it is often said there are three political parties: Republicans, Democrats and mayors. This commonality of vision and purpose at the city level stands in stark contrast to the increasingly hostile party political divides we see at the national level.
The coming year will bring two planned major milestones that will dictate the course of British politics for the coming years: Brexit, and the Comprehensive Spending Review, due in the first half of next year. For both to be a success, it is crucial that the Government addresses the ambitions and concerns of city leaders.
That means giving mayors and other leaders the powers and resources they need to drive prosperity in their places, especially while central government’s bandwidth is consumed by managing Brexit negotiations and their aftermath. It also means ensuring that reform of the UK’s heavily centralised political system needs to be at the heart of the Spending Review, alongside fiscal announcements. Money will be critical but it must be accompanied by a significant shift in how that money gets spent.
Revitalising the devolution agenda
A more immediate milestone is the Government’s Devolution Framework which is scheduled for publication in autumn. How extensive and ambitious this Framework should be is a live debate in the corridors and meeting rooms of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. The significance the Government gives to the framework will signal the level of its ambition and commitment to city region devolution.
We encourage the Government to be ambitious and to set out a programme of devolution that gives our cities the powers, resources and responsibilities they need to ensure the country can thrive and prosper in the coming years amid Brexit uncertainty.