Vince Cable reprised his now-familiar Jeremiah act at the end of last year, lamenting that London ‘is sucking the life out of the rest of the country’ as he reiterated his opposition to a third runway at Heathrow airport near his Twickenham constituency. The virtual inevitability of the third runway aside, his negative tone stood in stark contrast to the excitement around the role of cities in the economy that is suffusing much of wonk world.
The Centre for Cities recently released Cities Outlook 2014, its seventh annual ‘health check’ of the economic vibrancy or otherwise of the UK’s 64 largest cities and towns, which again made the case for stronger revenue-raising powers for cities, and this year focused on the relationship between London and other cities. Fortunately, unlike Cable, most involved in the debate believe that the aim should be not to knock London down a notch or two but to give other cities and their surrounding regions proper city government, such that they can stand on a more equal footing with London – and, indeed, with cities across the world. That was the thrust of Manchester city council leader Richard Leese when discussing the report. Indeed, cities like Manchester have grown considerably over the last decade, indicating it does not all have to be doom and gloom for those outside the capital. And, as the tank pointed out, ‘at £51bn and £55bn, the economies of greater Manchester and greater Leeds respectively are bigger than the entirety of the Welsh economy – which is £47bn large. So why can’t these two larger city-regions have similar financial freedoms and flexibilities?’
Although the coalition’s proposal to introduce city-mayors in a swath of English cities was rejected at the ballot box in most places, the idea will not die. Birmingham MP Gisela Stuart recently wrote for Progress that we need more executive mayors and that Whitehall must give ‘tax-raising powers to England’s largest cities. They must also gain control of the revenues from all property taxes, such as stamp duty, council tax, land tax and business rates.’
Indeed, all manner of proposals are being devised by thinktanks. Last month IPPR recommended the introduction of ‘earnback deals’, in which cities across England that successfully introduce measures to help increase local employment would be entitled to claim ‘cashback’ from the Treasury, particularly with a view to closing the north-south divide, because the north, it argued, ‘continues to lose out on public spending on economic development which is skewed towards London and the south-east. Instead, the north is currently compensated with welfare payments and grants’. A ‘Boris of the north’ is needed to win new powers, the tank said. Elected mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson has started to win national recognition, not least for recently taking on Boris Johnson’s bid to claim the Beatles’ legacy for London, underlining the role a city-mayor can play in acting as a voice for a city’s cultural identity as much as for the drier if vital job of securing new revenue funding streams.
The right is looking at the future of our cities too. Policy Exchange has put out a call for evidence, asking, ‘How do you build a smart city?’ ‘Technology has already transformed much of our daily lives,’ the tank writes. ‘But it has yet to have more than a peripheral effect on public services … From reducing congestion … to speeding up emergency response times, there are few city problems that technology cannot play a part in solving.’ Between new powers, new technologies and ideas honed in thinktanks about how to use them there is reason, in contrast to Cable, to be optimistic about the future of our cities.
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