Building a new kind of city economy

That sustainable growth and the future of the British economy are linked to the health of the United Kingdom’s cities is the overwhelming message of Andrew Adonis’ growth review. Unlocking the potential of cities to drive growth will repair a fractured economy too easily dominated by what happens in London. The historic imbalance toward against our great northern cities is stark. Despite being the engine room of industrialisation, successive governments have failed to provide our metropolitan cities with the tools to reinvent themselves in the new world. Too many levers remain in Whitehall. Too much policy is determined by ministers not local leaders and businesses. Adonis is not a politician who disappoints. This could be the biggest shake-up of government for a long time, giving significant power and funding to councils and away from Whitehall.

But this renaissance of local determination should not just be about the big cities. We need a networked economy that brings together the best of the big cities with the entrepreneurial spirit and specialism of emerging new cities and towns, such as in Reading, Cambridge and Milton Keynes. Giving councils a much greater say over investment and skills, and allowing them to keep the proceeds of growth, are exactly the kind of powers Milton Keynes and SEMLEP – our local enterprise partnership – needs to help businesses and support new infrastructure.

Milton Keynes already has one of the fastest-growing economies in the UK. The latest Centre for Cities Small Business Outlook underpins our strength in new business start-ups. We have big horizons for a new city with three-quarters of our SMEs trading on national and international markets. In the next few years we will be the largest city in the south-east outside London. We have a growing economy and rank consistently in the top 10 places in the UK for business investment. While many parts of the south-east are dogged by controversy over housebuilding, Milton Keynes builds nearly 2,000 new homes a year.

Yet our growth could be so much better if we had the power to determine our own priorities and investment decisions. I am pleased that Adonis got the opportunity to visit Milton Keynes as part of his review and to hear at first hand the views of businesses and skills providers, like UCMK and Milton Keynes College. Alongside Peter Marland and his new Labour administration, elected in May, Milton Keynes council is reaching out further to business partners and our neighbours to SEMLEP to help shape our future. We are forging new partnerships with business, our neighbours and skills providers to make the most of our position in the South East Midlands.

The kind of city deal outlined in the Adonis review could provide innovative economies like in Milton Keynes to flourish providing a regional powerhouse alongside our traditional cities. The egalitarian principles of Milton Keynes as a New Town have been challenged since the recession, even more since the election of a Conservative-led government in 2010. For all its promise of infrastructure investment before expansion, we are falling behind. For a city built mainly since the 1960s, it is shocking that we have a 13-year life expectancy gap between some estates separated by only a grid road. We do not have a problem building houses in Milton Keynes, but we do have an issue with ensuring that they are affordable. The proportion of affordable homes built in the city has fallen from 30 per cent when David Cameron became prime minister to just 20 per cent last year. Our NHS is straining under the pressure of a growing population and government cuts. Families simply cannot afford the cost of childcare and struggle to make the most of job opportunities that are available.

The original pioneering spirit of Milton Keynes was about a well-designed house for all, with rewarding jobs and a lively city of culture. These founding principles, alongside a proactive development corporation, made Milton Keynes the most ambitious of the postwar New Towns. As we approach our 50th anniversary, we need a new compact with government to give us the power to renew that vision. The Adonis review provides just that backdrop.

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Andrew Pakes is Labour and Cooperative prospective parliamentary candidate for Milton Keynes South. He tweets @andrew4mk

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Photo: Jim

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