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Making the case for urban devolution is Centre for Cities’ main aim and every year we champion the untapped potential of Britain’s largest urban areas among politicians and key national and local policy makers at the two main party conferences.
This was a strange year for the conferences. Attention at Labour understandably turned towards the Supreme Court’s ruling on the prorogation of Parliament, while the Conservatives dealt with its consequences.
But encouragingly this did not mean that domestic issues were ignored. I got the sense from the political parties that, despite the current Brexit log-jam, both of them are now preparing for life after Brexit – whenever that may be.
It also seemed to me that both parties recognised that tackling Britain’s geographic economic imbalances is the biggest domestic challenge that they face. Though admittedly, recognition took different forms.
The unhelpful ‘towns verses cities’ debate was prevalent in Brighton at Labour Party Conference, while the Conservatives in Manchester appeared to have re-embraced the Northern Powerhouse after three years of stagnation.
On the specifics of policy detail, both parties made surprisingly similar noises in some key areas. Politicians of all political persuasions recognised that transport – particularly buses, roads and rail – and skills are key issues that need to be addressed if we are to raise productivity and living standards in Britain’s cities.
But I sensed less agreement on housing policy from the two main parties. This is unsurprising; the Labour Party is committed to an ambitious social house building programme while the Conservatives, for whom homeownership is a core tenet of their philosophy, want to make it easier for young people to get onto the ladder.
Centre for Cities is largely neutral in this tenure debate. The crisis that we see is one of supply that will only be solved by reforming the planning system and building significantly more homes of all tenures near to the cities that people are drawn to for work.
And crucially, after a decade of austerity, politicians now recognise that empowering local government and furthering devolution will require more spending and investment from Whitehall.
Shadow Local Government Secretary Andrew Gwynne stated that 70% of the plans laid out in Labour’s new manifesto would require local government to help implement them. Putting local government back at the heart of service delivery won’t come cheap and I hope that the next Labour manifesto will recognise that true devolution, that which really empowers people and communities, attaches power to money and allows local government to act as independent agents of Whitehall.
The consensus recognising the need for more money is encouraging. Our Cities Outlook 2019 report found that people living in cities shouldered the equivalent of £386 worth of local government cuts each in the last decade, compared to £172 per person elsewhere. Clearly then, more money is needed for urban areas.
But, despite warm words, there was less clarity from both conferences about what the future of devolution in England should look like, and it was notable that city leaders from both parties that I spoke with expressed frustration about the lack of clarity they were getting from their respective parties on devolution policy.
While there was support for answering the ‘English Question’ and how to devolve power to rural areas at Labour Conference, the Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick set out more detailed proposals, telling Conservative delegates that he could not see a long-term future for the current two-tier council structure. For us, this is a step in the right direction; it will help smaller cities build a local government structure that better reflects their economic geography and form combined authorities more easily.
There was a palpable sense at the conferences that the two parties are preparing for the future and both hope to decentralise away from Westminster and Whitehall. But before they can they need to be clear what form this devolution will take. I heard plenty of good ideas about this at the conferences, and some less good ones.
Now they need a clear programme about how they are going to help people and communities take back control.
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