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Today we’ve published the second episode of our new City Talks podcast (you can stream it at the bottom of the page). I took over from Andrew this month for an election “special” – looking at where the different parties stand on cities policy and how they can strengthen their appeal across urban Britain. Joining the debate were the editor of LabourList Mark Ferguson, Bright Blue researcher David Kirkby, and Jonn Elledge, editor at CityMetric.
Given the race to the top we’ve seen on cities policy over the last year, it was very useful to get a party political perspective on why city devolution has received so much attention, and how that will play out in the election campaign. So to introduce the podcast, I’ve handed over to Mark and David to explain why both Labour and the Conservatives should care more about devolution to cities.
In recent months I’ve spent a lot of time travelling around the country interviewing Labour candidates to see what the campaign looks like on the ground, and very rarely do I find myself far from a train station. Labour’s electoral map is overwhelmingly urban, and while the Party has interesting policies to offer rural areas (particularly around transport and broadband connectivity), ultimately its fate at the election will be decided in cities.
Now I’ll admit that empowering city regions is not the first thing urban voters want to talk about when Labour is out on the doorstep. However, when framed as a question about having a greater say over what services are offered in your local area, or whether you would like more power held locally, voters are overwhelmingly in favour of greater devolution to cities and communities. This is an opportunity that Labour should grasp.
It’s a rare and brave type of politician who works hard to get into power in order to give that power away. But there are signs that Ed Miliband is willing to be that kind of transformational politician. He should double down on devolution, making the most of Labour’s plans to reverse the near-permanent centralisation of power into a few hands and a few square miles. With the reputation of Westminster at an all-time low, Labour’s commitment to democratic reform will be an asset at the election, never mind that it’s not a traditional “bread and butter” issue. Telling Britain’s cities that power will flow away from the patronage of the Prime Minister and towards them can position Labour as on the side of the people.
This Conservative-led Government has led the way on city devolution, and the embrace of the agenda by Conservative ministers has prompted surprise in certain quarters. But there should be no surprise here. There are good reasons for Conservatives specifically being enthusiastic about city devolution.
First, city devolution fits with Conservative conceptions of responsibility. Conservatives believe that people should be responsible for themselves because they are best placed to make judgements about how to conduct their affairs, much better placed than a distant state. So too, pushing power down to cities so that they are more responsible for their own affairs should be seen as a path to better decision-making and stronger local economies.
Second, city devolution promises to unleash competitive forces, highly valued by Conservatives, within the public sector which can drive up standards for all. By empowering cities to take responsibility for services, they are empowered to do things differently and innovate, and encouraged to compete to perform better than the rest. For example, while the devolution of health spending to Greater Manchester has prompted concerns of a postcode lottery, refusing to allow any one area to perform better than the rest is, ultimately, a recipe for mediocrity. Having Manchester and Leeds competing to deliver services better than each other can drive up standards in the long run.
Third, city devolution promises a political benefit for the Conservative Party. While there are unlikely to be many votes in May determined by the issue, it is essential to a longer term strategy of rebuilding support in urban areas that have all but deserted the party. If support in urban areas is to be rebuilt, the party needs to speak in a positive way about places like Newcastle, Birmingham and Sheffield. Every time George Osborne travels to Manchester or Leeds to talk about the ‘northern powerhouse’, he demonstrates that our metropolitan cities feature on the Conservative political landscape as sources of economic and civic strength. This matters politically because people identify with and care about their cities. Conservatives need to care too.
You can stream the podcast below. Next month, Andrew will be back in the chair discussing city mayors.
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