Would Birmingham and Manchester be better off without London? Should we be deliberately rebalancing city economies away from financial services and towards manufacturing? And what would it take to make some “fragile” Local Enterprise Partnerships work?
These were just some of the challenging questions that we debated yesterday at Centre for Cities’ first ever Question Time event, with Mark Easton chairing a lively debate between Lord Andrew Adonis, James Morris MP (Chair of the APPG on Local Growth), Colin Stanbridge (Chief Executive of the London Chamber of Commerce), Hamish McRae (Independent commentator) and me.
The discussion ranged widely, touching on issues from whether policy can ever make a difference (the politicians both thought it could!) to how to define a ‘city’ (by population, rather than by whether it has a cathedral has always been the Centre’s response).
So, let’s take the debates in turn:
London and the UK
When it came to London, perhaps unsurprisingly the whole panel agreed that the idea of the UK without London was neither a likely nor desirable prospect. However, while Colin Stanbridge proposed that if you didn’t have London, you’d have to invent it and that we need to make the most of its unique global status, James Morris argued that we need to do more to make the most of assets outside London, for example by making Birmingham airport the new hub rather than focusing on Heathrow.
As a couple of panel members noted, the UK is also a very small country, which makes the relationships between places critical to urban and national economic success. I argued that we could do more to make the most of links between UK cities, for example by capitalising much more on London’s ability to act as a gateway for investment in the rest of the UK, while Andrew Adonis noted that cities need both to focus more on making the most of their interdependence and to focus more on how they are distinctive from one another.
Manufacturing versus Financial Services
Hamish McRae suggested that we can be proud of UK manufacturing, as we have high tech specialisms in hard-to-develop niche areas such as pharmaceuticals and cars. I noted that we are less dependent on financial services – even London – than is widely perceived, and Colin Stanbridge argued we should stop talking down financial services so much, or indeed services generally, but instead celebrate our successes in these sectors.
Several panel members agreed with my point that our history of “deliberate rebalancing” is littered with failures, so, as James Morris noted, the key to successful city economies is making the most of existing strengths, rather than trying to create them from nothing. Andrew Adonis captured the issue succinctly by noting that “the UK just needs to get better at what it’s good at”, making the most of comparative advantage.
The ‘r’ word – region– was mentioned regularly, with Mark questioning whether the shift from regions to local enterprise partnerships has been positive for local areas or not.
There were mixed views on this. Andrew Adonis was positive about the track record of regional development agencies, while not suggesting they would return, while James Morris contended that local enterprise partnerships are far more reflective of the ‘real’ economy, less ‘one-size-fits-all’ and allow places to make their own decisions.
Whatever the institutional framework, I argued that national policy needs to be much more responsive to local difference in order to be effective. For example, while the UK as a whole needs more houses, this is much more acute in very unaffordable cities in London and the South East, while more affordable cities such as Burnley would benefit more from policies incentivising refurbishment and replacement.
We could all have kept talking and debating for hours, and it was great to see so many people join us afterwards for a drink. Thanks to everyone who came along for the debate and socialising afterward. I’m looking forward to continuing more of these debates at our upcoming events, including our launch of a new ‘Business Outlook’ report modelled on ‘Cities Outlook’, as well as at the party conferences where we’ll be launching our debates about a Cities Manifesto for 2015.
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