Reflections on the devolution revolution

Alexandra Jones looks back on the big changes in cities policy during her time at Centre for Cities

It’s hard to believe that this is my final blog for Centre for Cities. Six and a half years after becoming Chief Executive, I have moved on to become Director of Industrial Strategy at the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy.

I have felt privileged to do such an interesting job and work with a wide variety of talented people, and I will miss it. But the chance to work on a place-based industrial strategy seemed too good to pass up, and I’m delighted that Andrew Carter is the new Chief Executive – I know that he’ll lead the Centre from strength to strength.

Looking back on my time here, I am proud of what the organisation has achieved. My aim when I started was to ensure that the Centre had genuine impact on policy and practice to improve UK city economies, and that we were the first port of call for data, insights and ideas about cities. There is always more to do but, six years on, I feel we have made genuine progress.

Devolution policy – one of our flagship areas of work – has changed hugely in recent years. Many people and organisations have contributed to this agenda, but I know from the public and private feedback we’ve had from Government ministers that our work has been influential in helping to shape devolution policies, from City Deals and Local Growth Deals to Devolution Deals. Metro mayors – a policy that my predecessor Dermot Finch also pursued with vigour – will be in post in seven areas in England (including London) within the next month, with significant powers over transport, planning and skills – and if the example of the London mayoralty is anything to go by, more powers to come in the pipeline.

We’ve also worked on many other areas of policy that have changed and developed, from the hourglass labour market and apprenticeships, to business rates and tax-raising, and ways of improving productivity in small and medium sized businesses. We’ve investigated why some places are thriving and others struggling and what you can do about it, taking not just a short term perspective through our annual Cities Outlook – always a big media hit – but also a hundred year perspective with our groundbreaking Century of Cities. Some other areas of our work which have had less media impact – such as our collaborations with UK cities – are where I like to think we’ve had real impact on some of the practice that makes a difference to jobs and growth.

We’ve also continued our work to make cities data more accessible and interesting, with the Centre’s talented team ensuring our work is as concise, interactive and illustrative as possible. Our innovative interactive data tool is heavily used and we’ve added more and more to it in recent years including our annual Outlook numbers as well as comparisons with European cities. Some of our numbers have become ‘go to’ stats for policy-makers and media commentators, including most recently our finding that London generates 30p in every £1 of economic taxes. And we’ve worked hard to increase wider debate about the role that ‘place’ and cities play in supporting economic growth.

None of this would have been possible without a fantastic team, or without support from policymakers, businesses and cities around the UK and beyond. Change happens when stats and stories really resonate with those making decisions, implementing policies and running businesses – and we have worked with some of the best. It’s been great to hear some of our partners talk about how they use Centre for Cities’ work, and I’m also proud of the accolades we’re received in recent years, including Prospect’s ‘One to Watch’ think tank award in 2013, our shortlisting for the same magazine’s ‘Economic and Financial Think Tank of the year’ in 2015, and the Regional Studies Association ‘Practice and Policy’ award in 2016.

Cities are endlessly fascinating and I could happily have continued working on a whole range of issues for many years to come. With more time I would have liked to do more on issues relating to ‘inclusive growth’ – building on work the Centre has done looking at the roles of cities, developing resilience and adapting over time, and changes to labour markets – and it’s great that this is one of the areas that the Centre will be focusing on this year. I also think the Centre’s forthcoming programme looking at the geography of the ‘future of work’ will be hugely exciting; far too few people think about how automation or the new minimum wage plays out in particular places.

It has been a real pleasure to work at the Centre for Cities and I have learned an enormous amount. I am now looking forward to watching the Centre thrive under Andrew’s leadership, and continuing to stay in touch with an agenda that will be so critical to the future growth and prosperity of the UK as a whole.

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