2014 has been a very big year for UK cities, with the Scottish Independence Referendum and the upcoming General Election focusing minds more than ever on the economic and political geography of the country, and the role cities play within it. Throughout the year, our blog has been weighing into the big developments in cities policy, evaluating their strengths and weaknesses, and highlighting where they could be more bold and impactful. We’ve pulled together some of the posts that have proved particularly popular with readers, to show how the UK cities story has unfolded over the last 12 months.
In January, our annual Cities Outlook report took on the issue of London’s dominance in the UK economy. Our maps showing how the capital attracts students and young workers from all over the country were of particular interest, and on the blog our Senior Economist Paul looked at whether this was also the case for the big cities in the North of England. He found that while Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds were a big draw for students, the cities could not compete with London on the number and range of job opportunities available, and therefore had trouble retaining graduates, who tended to head South once they completed their studies.
While over the course of 2014, the model of cities forming combined authorities gained increasing momentum, back in February the battle was very much still uphill, and our Chief Executive Alex was compelled to urge that they were still a “prize worth playing for”. Soon enough, the tides began to turn, and one by one, councils in East Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, Merseyside and the North East followed in the wake of Manchester and agreed to form new organisations that will allow closer cross-border collaboration.
In April, Ed Miliband put city devolution at the heart of Labour’s economic plans in a speech in Birmingham – pledging to devolve skills funding and the Work Programme to city-regions, and to double the Single Pot. While Alex’s response welcomed the Opposition Leader’s commitment to put devolution at the heart of his economic growth strategy, and hoped it would spur a ‘race to the top’ on cities policy ahead of the 2015 Election, she also cautioned on the need for further detail, and highlighted how far there was to go to deliver truly radical change.
Two months later in June, Alex’s hopes for a cross-party consensus on devolution looked increasingly likely, when the Chancellor, George Osborne, announced his intention to create a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ – connecting the string of large cities between Liverpool and Hull. On the blog, Alex endorsed the focus on connectivity, trailing some maps from our upcoming transport paper to show why a rail link between Manchester and Leeds should be the priority first step for major transport investment focusing on driving economic growth.
While much of the announcements we saw around cities in 2014 were focused on the under-performers, so too has this year shone light on the challenges some of the UK’s strongest cities are facing; primarily, through the chronic under-supply of housing. Unfortunately, with the green belt still off the table amongst all parties, much of the political conversation on housing this year has focused building ‘garden cities’ – particularly following June’s announcement of the winners of the 2014 Wolfson Prize. In response, our Senior Economist, Paul, took to the blog to call out the fundamental issues underpinning the garden city concept – primarily, that they are slow and costly to build, and environmentally dubious – and called for debate around the housing crisis to instead focus on the cities we already have.
More encouraging, however, was the strong focus on public infrastructure investment – though questions around who ultimately benefits was the subject of much debate. In August, following the publication of the GLA’s 2050 Infrastructure Plan and the One North report by five major Northern cities, our Analyst and transport researcher Zach Wilcox explored some of the uncertainties that come with these large (and costly) projects. He went on to bust the myth that a pound spent in one area comes at the expense of another, and to urge that infrastructure investment can be a win-win throughout the UK if the conversation was less about competition and more about collaboration.
In September, the world’s attention turned to Scotland and its Referendum – though the national debate in turn stimulated renewed momentum for devolution at other levels too, including cities. Although the final result was in favour of the Union, Zach noted on our blog that it was a close call, and pulled out some of our maps showing that the sentiments behind the thirst for Scottish independence were shared in many cities below the border. According to Zach, more devolution to cities (as well as to Scotland) is the lesson to take from the Referendum.
In November, our blog heralded the possibility of “one of the biggest shifts in power from centre to city that we’ve seen in generations”, as the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement committed to devolving substantial powers and imposing an elected mayor to Greater Manchester. In her final blog before going on maternity leave, Alex looked ahead to what other cities need to do in order to take advantage of the Chancellor’s devolution package. She also pointed to where the ‘race to the top’ on cities policy might – and should – run next: moving beyond structural devolution, to fiscal devolution that would afford cities more control over their own money.
There has been a strong interest in the Centre’s blog this year, reflecting the enormous level of debate in the media and political sphere around many of the core issues that our work addresses: devolution, city governance, housing, transport and migration in particular. Coming into the Election, it is certain that these topics will once again dominate much of the agenda in 2015, so please do continue to follow the conversation on our new website and our Twitter account in the New Year.