Economic disparities within regions matter as much as the north/south divideby / January 20, 2015 / Leave a comment
The closest mainstream politics in the UK got to a consensus last year was the agreement among the three major parties that we had to do something about our cities. Cities, everyone agreed, are the engines of economic growth. We all know about the economic contribution London (and the City of London, in particular) makes to the national coffers, of course. But there was also a growing recognition of the contribution made by our so-called “second-tier” cities (those outside London, in other words): between them, eight of those cities account for a substantial chunk of the country’s economic output.
Those cities could, however, be performing even better, and here the consensus pointed in the direction of some fairly radical political changes. One of its leading representatives, Andrew Adonis, the Shadow Infrastructure Minister, is quoted at the beginning of Cities Outlook 2015, which was published yesterday by the Centre for Cities: “[D]evolution of power and resources from Westminster to Whitehall to city regions across the country,” says Adonis, “is vital to creating a sustainable and strong economic recovery… [This is] a moment of political opportunity for radical devolution, and I hope this moment will be seized across the political divide.”
The Centre for Cities report suggests that there has been a “race to the top” on cities policy and urban devolution between the three main parties. And it was certainly striking to see the alacrity with which the Chancellor George Osborne sought to annex terrain staked out first by Ed Miliband in his speech on devolution back in April. That kicked off what the report calls “the year for cities,” other notable moments in which were Osborne’s “Northern powerhouse” speech in June, Adonis’s Growth Review in July, the Scottish independence referendum (which put devolutionary questions centre stage), the final report of the City Growth Commission in October and the “City Deal” on further devolution that the government made with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in November.
It remains to be seen whether politicians’ enthusiasm for giving away power to the cities will survive a punishing and protracted general election campaign. Clearly, one of the main aims of the report’s authors was to keep these questions firmly on the political agenda. And judging by the amount of press coverage it received yesterday, they have a fighting chance of succeeding in doing so.
Most of that coverage has focused on what the report has to say about the tenacity of the north-south divide. It looks at “city economies” in the period 2004-14 and finds that the performance gap between cities in the south (a generously defined area stretching from Bristol in the west to Ipswich in the east, and from Peterborough in the north to Brighton in the south) and those in the rest of the country has widened during those ten years. The report is full of arresting data on various aspects of that disparity—in population growth, business growth, job creation, innovation and housing.
Less widely remarked upon, though perhaps just as significant, is what the report shows about intra– as well as inter-regional disparities. Some cities in the south east are struggling, too. For instance, the rate of job creation in Luton over the last decade has been virtually static, while its population has grown by 13 per cent; and Ipswich has suffered a decline in net jobs between 2004 and 2014.
The pattern in which larger cities are leaving their smaller and more geographically isolated satellites behind is repeated across the country. And it’s not obvious that the policy recommendations the report makes—which include extending the “City Deal” in which Manchester was awarded greater control over strategic planning, transport investment and skills policy to other city regions—begin to address the problem.
Register here for the Glasgow leg of Prospect’s “Future of Cities” programme on 11th February, in association with the Government Office for Science (BIS).