This year’s Cities Outlook generated plenty of debate on a host of issues, and the coverage reminded me of the 10p bag of pick-and-mix sweets I used to buy on my way home from school – plenty of diverse options enjoyed immensely, with one or two that were best avoided. Below is a summary of some of the more interesting reactions we’ve seen over the past week.
- Many of the national newspapers – Independent, Guardian, The Times, Daily Mail and the FT – led with our headline findings that over a 10-year, period Southern cities out-performed cities elsewhere in the UK on jobs, business, and population growth, but fared considerably worse on house building and affordability.
- BBC Breakfast, The Times and Newsnight focused on Milton Keynes, the city at the top of the jobs growth ranking, and sought to explore what makes it so attractive to firms and workers. The general conclusion was its mixture of cheap housing, geographic proximity to the capital, plentiful land and office space, and the abundance of skilled workers these features have attracted. Although, perhaps surprisingly, Simon Jenkins on Newsnight asserted that from a planning and sustainability perspective, he felt Milton Keynes had been a complete disaster, and offered no insights or lessons for cities elsewhere. His co-discussant Pete Winkleman, Chairman of the MK Dons football team, unsurprisingly disagreed and felt that the pro-growth, can-do attitude of Milton Keynes was something that other cities can learn from.
- With a tone of surprise, Lynsey Barber in City AM highlighted the six cities – Milton Keynes, Peterborough, Swindon, Luton, Cambridge and Aberdeen – that grew faster than London over the last 10 years on three three key measures: population, number of new businesses and number of new jobs.
- Continuing the London focus, Richard Brown from Centre for London (writing in City Metric) raised the concerns that London’s future success is not guaranteed, with potential negative flow-on effects right across the country. He wrote: “Unless we build more housing and other infrastructure, and invest in our skills base, London’s long-term position as one of the pre-eminent world cities could be threatened. . . if London continues to become unaffordable to everyone but the richest and the luckiest, it will lose the skills that have supported its growth, and growth across the UK. Some firms may follow the talent to Birmingham or Bristol, and many would welcome that type of rebalancing within the UK economy. But a large number of firms would move to Berlin or Barcelona – and we will all lose out.“
- Coventry and Swindon were both put under the spotlight by the FT. Coventry as an example of a city that has reinvented itself by making the most if its industrial past – it’s the historic home of the Rover, Jaguar and Hillman Avenger brands. The city was highlighted in Cities Outlook‘s top 10 cities for jobs growth, and the FT highlighted how it is making the most of its strong heritage and supporting both home grown firms and foreign companies and investors, including now-Indian-owned Jaguar Land Rover, to thrive.
- In its coverage of Swindon, the FT focused on the fact that it’s the one of only two cities in the UK with more than four private sector jobs to every one public sector job (the other being Crawley). Swindon was featured in Cities Outlook as a city that has experienced high levels of business and population growth over the past decade, but has not matched these with strong jobs growth. This seeming anomaly reflects three phenomena: firstly, that significant jobs were lost during this period at big-ticket employers, such as Honda and Woolworths; secondly, that many other companies of varying sizes have either started up or continued to grow during this time, though they are not yet employing the equivalent number of staff; and thirdly, that more people are choosing to live in Swindon and commute to jobs outside of the city in Bristol, Reading and London.
- The Yorkshire Post’s coverage highlighted how even within one region, the performance of cities can be very different, with Yorkshire proving a strong case in point. While York, Leeds, Wakefield and Barnsley managed to maintain or slightly increase the number of jobs in their cities, Huddersfield, Hull and Grimsby all had fewer jobs at the end of the 10-year period than at the start. Other commentators, including Jonathan Derbyshire at Prospect, also used Outlook as a basis from which to raise questions about disparities in the performance of cities in the same region. He wrote: “Less widely remarked upon, though perhaps just as significant, is what the report shows aboutintra– as well as inter-regional disparities. Some cities in the south east are struggling, too. For instance, the rate of job creation in Luton over the last decade has been virtually static, while its population has grown by 13 per cent; and Ipswich has suffered a decline in net jobs between 2004 and 2014.”
Nearly everybody commenting on the report’s findings agreed that ‘something must be done’. And most agreed with our recommendations that giving cities more control over their finances is vital if we want more cities to make a positive contribution to national growth.
- At the Outlook launch event, York’s Chief Executive, Kersten England, spoke about how cities’ lack of control over their finances is “stifling local innovation and hampering the ability local decision makers to pursue local priorities”. So too did Mayor George Ferguson call on Central Government to ‘have more guts, and give them control over their finances’.
- In the Yorkshire Post, John Mothersole, Chief Executive of Sheffield City Council, wrote: “I think there is an alignment now, either by chance or by design, between a North that knows what it can be good at and is feeling confident about itself and national policies that are increasingly recognising that we can’t go on with the South and London in particular generating all the cash . . . This nation needs a high-performing London, what this nation doesn’t need is an underperforming North . . . I think the real question is how quickly and boldly can we do it? Sometimes we are very good in this country at deciding what the right thing to do is and then doing it in baby steps.”
There were all interesting points of view, which added depth and perspective to enhance the analysis of Cities Outlook, and bring it to life through a focus on the triumphs and struggles of specific cities. But, as with any pick-and-mix bag and sweets, Outlook also attracted some conjecture and commentary from those who didn’t like what was presented to them.
- Not least of all, at the launch of the report itself, Hon. Greg Clark MP, Minister for Cities, contested that the Coalition Government’s city-focused approach had gone a significant way to reducing the disparities between the South and elsewhere, declaring: “Since 2010, more than 60 per cent of the rise in employment has taken place outside London and the South-east. We’re very optimistic about the opportunities that lie ahead for great cities of the North.”
- In the Hull Daily Mail, business leaders argued that the report didn’t capture all the good things that had been happening over the last year. Lord Haskins, Chair of the Humber Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), said: “The progress we are making is encouraging but we are delivering a long- term strategy and, as such, it will take time to come through. Last year was a year of significant momentum across the Humber.” I hope this is true and that we will be able to show their hard work and achievements in next year’s Outlook.
Clearly, some local and national leaders took affront to the stark findings of Outlook, but it must be stressed that the intention was not to present a picture of relentless doom and gloom. One of Outlook’s key messages this year was that 2014 had been an unprecedented year for cities, during which time all the mainstream parties took ownership over the UK’s economic imbalance and committed themselves to devolving more powers and responsibilities. And while several commentators questioned whether politicians’ enthusiasm for giving away power to the cities will survive a punishing and protracted General Election campaign, as Jonathan Derbyshire noted, “Clearly, one of the main aims of the report’s authors was to keep these questions firmly on the political agenda. And judging by the amount of press coverage it received yesterday, they have a fighting chance of succeeding in doing so”.
For his part, the Guardian’s Larry Elliott concluded that, despite the challenges presented by the data, there are reasons to be cheerful that the momentum achieved over the last 12 months will be maintained. “First, there is now broad recognition that something different is needed. Second, lessons have been learned from London, where the creation of the Greater London authority led by a directly elected mayor proved a success. Third, the fact that the Whitehall money hose has run dry has encouraged creative thinking. Fourth, the promise that further powers will be devolved to Scotland after the closely fought referendum campaign has inevitably led to those running the big northern cities demanding similar degrees of autonomy. Finally, there has been some political accommodation. It has suited the Conservatives and the Labour-run councils in Northern cities to work together.”
Here at the Centre for Cities, we certainly hope this will be the case and will continue to reinforce the argument for why strong, independent, prosperous cities are the key to resolving the pressing economic, political and financial challenges both ahead of and beyond the General Election.
We will also be exploring some of the most interesting issues highlighted within the report – such as why some cities have been able to more successfully adapt their economies to changes in the political, economic and social landscape over time – in upcoming major pieces of work, so watch this space for further details.