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Our City Links survey points to some bigger issues about how politicians and businesses should respond to the way the international economy is changing, and the effect it has on people’s lives in the UK.
We live in a globalised economy, a world in which we’re competing not so much within the UK as between the UK and other countries. That competition is increasingly between cities, with businesses considering not so much the US vs UK but New York vs London. Knowledge intensive businesses matter more and more, not only to jobs growth but also productivity – and that’s making the cities with access to customers, skills and ideas even more important
But the way this economy tends to play out across the UK is very uneven – in the boom years, in recession and into recovery – and people are feeling this. As a result, there’s a growing sense that, despite being a geographically small country, we’re an economically disconnected one, meaning people think that London’s success only benefits those who live and work there. This is compounded by the fact that London is also the seat of political power and where most national journalists live.
Our survey shows this quite clearly; that national impact doesn’t mean impact for individuals. It’s like the reverse NHS effect. It’s known that people’s ratings of their treatment at a local level is always far higher than their ratings of the NHS at a national level, because they’ve experienced the treatment, whereas the concept of the NHS as a whole is far more abstract.
For London, everyone hears about and can to some extent see its impact on the UK economy, but there’s very little tangible evidence of its impact locally and so people just don’t believe it. Businesses are a bit more convinced, as they can see tangible opportunities. But there’s a question about how much they feel able to benefit from London, and how easy it is for them to do so.
And so there’s a danger of the ‘London vs the rest’ debate, which has been growing recently, becoming one in which the calls are for London to stop growing and money to only go elsewhere. And that would be a real problem.
Because in a globalised world, London is a great asset for the UK; it’s got a good brand, it’s well-known, it has got a great ‘offer’ to people. Stopping making the most of London simply means a lot of investment and talent would go to New York instead.
But London’s not the UK’s only asset and I think that’s where some of the problems are. Politicians may talk up the importance of other cities but they don’t do so in tangible ways, or show how London can be a gateway to investment elsewhere as well as a complement to the investment cities like Manchester are getting for themselves. Does UKTI have sufficient knowledge of the high tech cluster in Bristol to get investment there instead, or the metals cluster in Yorkshire? Where’s the debate about the benefits of businesses locating in other cities that can still access London’s labour market but don’t have to pay the exorbitant costs of being there?
Our survey suggests there’s a real need for this debate to happen and to be led by politicians who recognise that we need to start talking about how the UK competes in the 21st century, and how it makes more of the potential its cities offer.
And it also shows that we need to start having more decisions and debates at a local level. We’re the most centralised country in the world; our survey showed that people don’t feel Whitehall and Parliament is responsive to them and that too much of national discussions on culture, politics etc is London-focused, rather than reflecting the rest of the country. Our survey shows that this has got to change too.
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