While much of the detail remains unclear, we may be seeing the beginnings of an urban policy renaissance.
We are now one week into Boris Johnson’s premiership. He has already toured the UK, selling his vision for a turbocharged Britain. His speech at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester on Saturday has been hailed by supporters as restarting the Northern Powerhouse, a concept that fell by the wayside under Theresa May, and launching a more interventionist economic policy – ‘Boosterism’.
His speech paid homage both to Manchester’s glorious past as the cradle of the global Industrial Revolution, and to its future – the possibilities of Graphene.
As always with Boris Johnson, when you scratch the surface of his typically colourful rhetoric you are left wondering how the detail of his plans will play out. If anything it was ‘cakeism’ that was evident in his remarks – particularly in relation to how he views cities and their role in the national economy.
Early on in his speech, he celebrated cities such as Manchester and London as modern wonders of the world where innovation, enterprise and wealth creation are generated.
But, after praising the value and importance of big cities, rather than setting out how he would ensure more cities can emulate the success of London and Manchester, he announced a programme to support smaller towns, and help bring them up to big city levels. Whilst this focus is necessary and politically expedient, it didn’t follow from his earlier praise of Manchester’s unique attributes that have enabled it to be attractive to the productive and knowledge-led businesses and workers that drive economic prosperity.
The new Prime Minister also risked falling into the trap of assuming that, because Manchester and other large cities are more prosperous than they were 30 or 40 years ago, the job there is complete. If only this were the case.
Despite progress being made, many cities still perform poorly on a number of economic and social indicators. This is most clear on productivity – our big cities should be leading the national economy on this measure, and yet most of them lag behind. This isn’t just bad for the people who live in and around them, it’s bad for UK plc too. For the country to be more prosperous, these cities need to be more prosperous.
Devolution is one way in which the performance of our cities can be improved. The former Mayor of London acknowledged that national government does not have all of the answers for dealing with local issues. He celebrated the role and impact that metro mayors like Andy Burnham are already having – albeit with limited powers and resources. But, rather than committing to devolving even more to Mayor Burnham and the other metro mayors, he emphasised the need to ‘level up’ – spreading the existing policy more widely so that more places can have mayors.
If the Prime Minister wants to level up in terms of devolution he should adopt a more internationalist perspective. His ambition should be to ensure that the existing metro mayors can stand as equals with powerful global urban leaders – Sadiq Khan with Bill de Blasio, Andy Burnham and Andy Street with Anne Hidalgo and Michael Muller. Holding back the front-runners so that other places can catch up is not the way to turbocharge the economy – every place must continue to move forward, even if they do so from different starting points.
In a wide ranging speech, the new prime Minster spoke about the importance of ‘liveability’ and high quality public services as the foundations for achieving the ‘good life’. This is spot on. I hope more places – cities, towns and rural areas – and government departments focus on these basics rather than the latest greatest grand project that is going to ‘transform’ them. The Government’s enthusiasm for free ports is an example of this. Our research has shown that the economic benefits of similar initiatives are nearly always small. In comparison a focus on more fundamental yet less eye-catching issues such as raising school performance and adult education really would be transformational.
And while the media’s take away from the speech was the Prime Minister’s desire to quicken the progress on Northern Powerhouse Rail and to prioritise the Manchester to Leeds section, his actual transport priorities are more nuanced. He stressed the importance of buses and set out his desire for cities to gain the same bus-franchising powers as London. The vast majority of urban commutes are within cities not between them, so again this is an encouraging step.
He also highlighted the need to address our growing social care challenge. Again, his focus on this is on the money. As our Cities Outlook 2019 analysis shows after, a decade of austerity more than half of our biggest urban areas spend more than 50 per cent of their budgets on social care – 10 years ago it was less than 7 per cent. In many parts of the country local government is struggling to deliver this most basic public services, which means it cannot do the things that make places great to live and work – parks, libraries, arts. Local government needs a dose of Boosterism.
While much of the detail of the Prime Minister’s plans for cities remains unclear, his speech on Saturday had some encouraging signals of a renaissance in urban policy making. Now I hope that, in the months ahead, the Government clarifies its position on the role that it expects cities, towns and other places to play in the national economy. Only by doing this can it develop a set of truly transformational policies that rebalance the economy and make everybody, everywhere more prosperous.
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