Summary: Listening to the Urban Voice

Urban policy in the UK has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, and while City Deals and more substantive Devolution Deals have given major cities and city regions some of the powers and resources they need to prosper, there is still a way to go.

Many city leaders in this country are not empowered to directly address the challenges and opportunities facing their economies on their own terms. With uncertainty over how Brexit will play out, as well as changes to the world of work, it is becoming increasingly important that the needs of cities are better heard on the national stage.

The UK City Leaders’ Survey has been developed for the first time this year. It aims to provide some understanding of what the needs and priorities of UK urban leaders are, along with how national policymakers can address these priorities. It approached all city leaders from the Centre for Cities database of 63 Primary Urban Areas and received a response rate of around a quarter.

Why is the urban voice important? Cities account for the majority of the UK economy, population and productivity growth. While cities have gained more powers to manage local policy and budgets, this is within the context of the UK being one of the most centralised countries in the OECD. Accordingly, cities are where some of the UK’s biggest opportunities and challenges lie, along with the growing political power and leadership to drive change.

Overview of the survey findings

Policy priorities

  • Housing and regeneration was identified, unprompted, as the biggest overall economic priority for the majority of leaders surveyed. When asked about their priorities for housing more specifically, almost all leaders chose increasing the supply of social housing or housing more generally. If given additional capital grant, most leaders stated they would allocate some to social housing.
  • Among their priorities for improving transport, leaders tended to identify roads within their area and supporting a shift from cars to other modes of transport (such as public transport) as the two key areas.
  • Leaders highlighted inclusive growth as another of their broader priorities, and when asked to provide more detail in this area, they tended to specify adult learning as the most important way to promote inclusive growth. In addition, when asked about specific changes that need to be made in the labour market to support the city’s evolving needs, leaders tended to identify supporting inclusions – such as supporting those who are isolated from the job markets to access opportunities.

Public service pressures

  • Unsurprisingly, social care was identified by almost every leader as being the public service under the most pressure. This was also the policy area where most leaders would wish to see further funding allocated through the upcoming Spending Review. In turn, many were prepared to sacrifice funding in other areas, such as adult skills, to achieve this.
  • Leaders identified two main challenges to service delivery – increasing demand for services and revenue funding. In terms of how leaders receive funding for services, they also tended to choose longer-term funding cycles over more flexible budgets.

Devolution and funding

  • All leaders demonstrated an appetite for devolution across a range of policy areas from skills to borrowing for housing and transport. A majority of the leaders felt that urban needs are not represented at the national scale. In a similar vein, they also tended to have more positive relationships with their local business and community groups than with national-level stakeholders such as Ministers and civil servants.

After Brexit

  • The UK Shared Prosperity Fund, the proposed replacement for former EU funding, was what leaders most wanted more say on after Brexit. Added to that, leaders also wanted a say over inward investment, public procurement and state aid rules.