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If I’d said in 2010 that, by May 2015, cities would be a policy area being fought over by the main political parties, ‘fiscal devolution’ would be a serious mainstream policy discussion rather than niche concern, and that an ‘enabling’ Cities Bill – which the Centre called for in its manifesto – would be going through Parliament as a priority, I’d have been dismissed as over- optimistic at best. Yet five years on, this is where we are. It’s not perfect, there’s more to do and we’re still waiting for substantial transformations. But all the noise suggests that the next five years will see at least some change. So what might 2020 look like?
Here are four shifts I would like to see by 2020.
First, cities will be setting the agenda on economic growth, culture and innovation, with variation between them regarded as positive rather than a ‘postcode lottery’ – although cities will be held strongly to account against minimum outcomes. Just as they are internationally, cities will be (and seen to be) hotbeds of ideas and innovation, driving engagement with: the private sector to unlock new investment and housing; the government to unlock investment in infrastructure; community partners to redesign service provision; and peers to work together as city regions on issues such as the economy, transport and housing. Ultimately, each city will be pulling all of this together to offer distinctive and enticing places to live, work, invest and socialise.
Second, there will be metro mayors in all the major UK cities. High profile politicians will be competing to become metro mayors and appeal to voters across the city region, from villages to major cities, and will be strongly held to account by local councillors as well as the local electorate. Each of these major cities will have struck its own deal with national Government, using the Cities and Local Government Bill, to have more powers over transport, housing and planning at a local level and this will already be translating into improvements on the ground.
Third, devolution of powers to places will move at different paces – and that will be seen as good. Cities are different. Some make a greater contribution to the economy; some have greater capacity to use powers; some have larger populations, meaning reforms there will impact on more people. The cities that are most ready and will have most impact should go first and fastest. These are big changes and to get them right requires policymakers to concentrate on significant change in a small number first, and ensure that the impact these changes will have on spending and growth in other cities is also thought through. Other cities will still be making progress, but at a smaller scale and slower pace.
Fourth, London, Manchester and perhaps one or two other cities will have greater control over their spending and their tax base. They will be piloting a system that genuinely incentivises them to reinvest in economic growth, with a national system in place to redistribute some of the proceeds of this growth to cities which continue to have struggling economies. They will also have greater flexibility over how public funds are spent within their area and be able to reinvest a proportion of savings made locally, while being held strongly to account against outcome targets.
But, while I have high hopes for the future, change has been slow and progress is by no means guaranteed. So what might get in the way of these shifts?
The politics within cities themselves, for one: it can be hard for individual areas to acknowledge the role that they play within a city region or for politicians to respond to local concerns while also agreeing and supporting an ambitious but realistic vision for the future of the whole city region. Local politics also make agreeing mayors very challenging – perhaps impossible in the short term – in some places but, given the Cities Bill, having a metro mayor will be vital to unlocking additional powers.
Tensions between cities – and counties – will continue to be an issue. Some cities will get more powers than others, particularly those willing to move towards a mayoral model. Counties will wish to have an opportunity for powers – and given it’s a Cities and Local Government Bill, I’d predict some counties will gain additional powers relatively quickly. But Government needs to find a way to support those who will not gain the same levels of powers and flexibility, and cities need to work out how healthy competition can create more rather than less space to move towards a less centralised system.
At national level, Whitehall will continue to resist losing control over the levers of power. Having the public commitment of the Chancellor, the Secretary of State for Communities and Lord Heseltine to this agenda will help enormously, but they will need to keep pushing the Whitehall machine to move beyond incremental change.
There will be technical challenges – designing a system that incentivises growth while allowing for redistribution will not be easy and previous attempts have all ended up being neither one thing nor another.
Cities will also be operating in a wider context that will make change of some kind vital – but it could be a shift towards even greater centralisation, rather than more devolution. Austerity will hit local government hard and may make it difficult for cities to deliver ambitious projects. Shocks to the global economy will inevitably affect cities, while uncertainty over membership of the EU may affect local investment. And those cities that have historically relied upon manufacturing continue to face the challenge of needing to restructure the economy, with all the additional national support that this will entail.
Yet for all these challenges, there is a global and national resurgence of cities that holds great promise for the next five years, even if the precise outcomes remain hard to predict. In the early 2000s we saw London’s mayoral model thrive and an urban renaissance in major cities; just over a decade later we are on the cusp of major devolution to a city outside London. By 2020, cities and national politicians alike need to seize the day and ensure there is real momentum behind these changes.
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