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Ed Balls gave a well-received speech on Monday which underlined the importance of prudence and “tough choices”, and challenged the OBR to inspect his spending plans. This was followed by Ed Miliband’s no-notes speech yesterday which was greeted by rapturous applause in the conference hall. It included a series of pithy soundbites such as’Britain can do better than this’, ‘the rising tide only floats the yachts’ and his argument that we need to avoid ‘a global race to the bottom’. To help counter the criticisms that Labour lacks policy, Ed Balls was clear that “there is no blank cheque” for HS2, while Ed Miliband announced a series of commitments including freezing energy prices for 20 months if Labour wins the next election, building 1 million more houses over the next Parliament and enforcing a ‘use it or lose it’ approach to land.
So what did it all mean for cities? Aside from HS2 and housing, cities and places weren’t mentioned much in the flagship speeches. However, Hilary Benn, Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, made up for that at our fringe, where he spoke alongside Sir Robin Wales, Mayor of Newham, Will Hutton, Observer columnist and Principal of Hertford College, Oxford, and Adam Marshall, Director of Policy and Public Affairs at the British Chambers of Commerce.
Hilary argued that there’s a strong need for a more ‘place-based’ approach – although he didn’t restrict it to cities – to issues such as housing, transport and skills, and was clear that Labour’s intention is to retain Local Enterprise Partnerships and work with them to support places to prosper. Challenges came from the panellists and the floor, however, around what this would look like in practice and whether it would really mean greater financial freedoms and flexibilities for cities. In his remarks, Sir Robin Wales highlighted what local authorities were already achieving, Will Hutton called for a ‘civic entrepreneurialism’ alongside greater devolution to cities and Adam Marshall called for 7 things to support business, from improved procurement to reduced regulation.
Many of the concerns aired about whether places really have enough freedoms were echoed in our two roundtable events, with our SME event with Zurich debating whether enough attention is paid to the diverse needs of SMEs in different places. Jack Dromey spoke at our housing event with Willmott Dixon and underlined the centrality of housing to Labour’s proposition for the next election, and therefore the importance of places.
It was very clear from the debates at all our fringe events that one of the biggest challenges for Labour is reconciling concerns about ‘postcode lotteries’ with recognition that different places face different challenges and therefore need different solutions. Many of the places that have an over- rather than under-supply of housing are Labour areas; a policy that’s all about building new houses won’t work for them. One of the Centre’s challenges as we launch our ‘Think Cities’ campaign and develop our detailed policy recommendations is to ensure that we can demonstrate how varying freedoms and flexibilities depending on the characteristics and capacity of different places can deliver better outcomes for the residents of those places as well as for the public purse.
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