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Ed Miliband’s keynote speech at the Labour conference set out his desire to “change the way our country is run”, outlining a ten-year plan for creating jobs, building homes, training young people and “restoring hope and opportunity”. Yet for all the expectation of a grand vision for the future, it was not only the deficit, but UK cities that stood out as a missing link, and which could have helped him to better tell a story about supporting economic growth and raising living standards – grounding these in the sense of place so important for connecting with everyday people.
Certainly cities and regions have received a good share of attention from the Party over the past few months, and it cannot go unnoticed that all of the Shadow Cabinet have made mention of them during the course of the conference. Miliband’s speech also made a few specific commitments, such as £30 billion in devolved funding, a reformed House of Lords, and some talk of greater fiscal devolution. These continue the important work of the Adonis Review in underlining just how essential financial control is to freeing cities to respond to their most pressing challenges. But overall, most of the policies were short on detail, did not talk about a wider agenda of devolution and ultimately did not set out just how vital cities are in linking so many of the other policies that support both economic growth and wellbeing.
The fact remains that cities policy simply cannot be viewed in isolation. And indeed, many of Miliband’s other stated aims – more housing, better skills, improved transport, and reformed energy policies – can only be achieved through enabling cities to play a much stronger role in identifying and meeting local needs.
Apprenticeships are a perfect example of this: even more important than getting young people into apprenticeships is ensuring that the skills they are seeking to build will be in demand when they come out the other end. This means building strong and dynamic business environments in UK cities, which offer the opportunities young people want and need, and local leaders working with local firms to identify skills gaps and match them with the employment services and the workers that can fill them. Mandating in favour of apprenticeships will only solve so much – businesses, most of which are in cities, need to be able to provide young people with the good quality, well-paid jobs that support thriving local and national labour markets.
Indeed the overarching message of ‘togetherness’ and the continued emphasis on regions alongside cities (despite the fact these no longer exist administratively and have never really existed economically) creates a concern that Labour has not fully realised how impossible it will be to deliver economic growth or reduce the deficit without completely changing the way spending is managed. The best and only way to deliver ‘national goals’ in a time of austerity is through local empowerment, to enable cities to deal with the specific barriers preventing houses being built or people accessing employment. If Westminster, even with £30 billion less in its coffers, continues to dominate the lion’s share of funding and control over policy-making, its one-size-fits-all approach will run into difficulties in achieving national goals and reducing the deficit.
Our Manifesto, released this week to coincide with the start of conference season, sets out one way to respond to this and help support both economic growth and deficit reduction. It calls for the establishment of a Cities and Prosperity Act, which would enshrine in law a presumption of devolution, and ‘enabling’ legislation that gives cities with the right governance structures and ambitions the funding power and flexibility they need to build local and national economic growth, and deliver more effective public services.
The Manifesto sets out a vision for a thriving UK economy, in which local empowerment becomes the status quo, and cities – and their residents – are given the opportunities they need and deserve to improve living standards and drive our future prosperity. It also offers all parties a partial response to the constitutional and political debate unleashed by the Scottish – not the whole answer, of course, but a series of rapidly deployable measures that would give people across the UK more control over how money is spent in their area.
If Labour are truly serious about tackling low pay and high living costs, and building a sustainable economy that delivers and shares wealth, health and security to people across the country, then it’s time to recognise the essential role that the UK’s cities – both the best and worst performing – will play in driving this change, and put them at the heart of their own Manifesto and their policy thinking. Look out over the coming days as we show just how important cities will be to achieving Labour’s ‘six big goals’.
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