Last week, the Fast Growth Cities group convened to discuss their role in the national economy and how they can make the most effective contribution to the industrial strategy. Much of the discussion on the day resonated with what we have long argued and advocated for – the need for localised solutions to urban challenges.
The national economy is a catch-all term for the hundreds of smaller economies that reside within it. While there are some exceptions, one-size-fits-all national economic policies are a blunt tool and can even prove counter-productive to the development of sub-national economies.
The Fast Growth Cities group represents Cambridge, Milton Keynes, Norwich, Oxford and Swindon – they are more successful than the UK average and are growing quickly. The group provides a voice for the particular challenges these cities face in managing the costs of growth. The costs that they have to grapple with – increasing transport congestion, insufficient housing supply, and reduced housing affordability and skills shortages – are not exclusive to these cities. The intensity of these challenges means that the urgency with which they need to be addressed is greater.
Even within this small, self-selected group the precise nature of the challenges these cities face varies significantly and is a good example of the need to take into account ‘place’ in policy making. The nuances and connections need to be understood and addressed to continue the success of these cities.
Consider housing: As it stands, Cambridge and Oxford, along with London, are the three least affordable cities in the UK. The trajectory of this, however, looks quite different. In Oxford, the supply of land for housing is heavily constricted by the historic demarcations of the green belt but this isn’t as much an issue in Cambridge. This meant that while Cambridge built the most houses out of any city in the UK in 2017/18, Oxford built the least. So, housing policy for Oxford needs to focus on making land available whereas Cambridge just needs to continue what it is already doing.
Skills are a good illustration of how these challenges are linked. Milton Keynes has a strong concentration of high-skilled jobs but a lower proportion of residents with high skills. This simultaneously encourages high-skilled workers from elsewhere to commute into the city and prevents local people from participating in the growth of the city. It also creates congestion on the roads of Milton Keynes. So a focus on upskilling the low-skilled would alleviate both congestion and skills shortages in Milton Keynes. This is a stark contrast with Cambridge and Oxford that struggle to retain their many high-skilled graduates due to housing costs.
Governance arrangements are uneven across these places. Cambridge falls within the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority within an elected mayor, Milton Keynes and Swindon are unitary authorities while Norwich is run by a city council and Oxford falls within Oxfordshire County Council. The responsibilities and powers that these places have within their boundaries differ and given the mismatch between political and economic geographies, decisions about their economic futures are being taken far from their own boundaries.
The devolution deals earlier in the decade and the local industrial strategies are a step in the right direction but more needs to be done to deliver long term improvements in transport and housing infrastructure in these cities. When it comes to urban development, one size rarely fits all and policy makers must recognise this. Targeted financial and political support and increased collaboration between the cities and Westminster is vital to continuing the growth of these cities.