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Let’s talk about our cities

The old debates about Whitehall versus City Hall are as relevant today as a Betamax video recorder

By Mark Prisk  


Our cities are growing. With the UN estimating that 70 per cent of the world’s population will be city dwellers by 2050, there’s a significant challenge facing those responsible for city planning and infrastructure.

This urbanisation has come as the UK Government has reversed decades of centralisation, to devolve new roles and resources to cities and urban conurbations in a series of “City Deals.” The election of new Metro Mayors in Merseyside, the West Midlands and Greater Manchester creates new centres of local power.

I was involved in the early stages of this devolution process, both in Opposition and then Government. For me it started from the belief that if we were ever to end the “North/South” divide, we had to free our great cities to fulfil their potential. Thirty years of being tightly run from Whitehall hasn’t worked—rather we need to enable our cities to take responsibility and that means devolving both powers and funds. It means embracing diversity, recognising that each community is different and that only when people become responsible for their area will they commit to its change.  So how to effect that change?

The emergence of smart technologies offers these city halls the chance to make their cities work better for their growing populations. Driven both by financial pressures and the need to use their natural and man-made resources more intelligently, cities in the UK and elsewhere are actively engaged in smart city pilots and programmes, to deliver more with less and to make our cities work better for their citizens.

As Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Smart Cities I have learnt much about the nature of these technologies and their application. I have learnt about the importance of Open Data and the need for improved connectivity across city halls and between the public agencies and private partners who deliver transport, energy, telecoms and other public services.

Take the bus. The decision by Transport for London to open up data has led to a series of apps providing passengers with unpreceded information about bus services immediate to them. People now know when the bus they need is due and the time that journey should take. The result is an increase in ridership, particularly amongst time-poor professionals.

However, what’s become clear is that the challenge in becoming a smart city is not about changing data systems. It’s about changing mind-sets. It’s about moving away from the silo mentality that dominates both Whitehall and City Hall and realising that only through collaboration—including with the private sector—will real innovation occur.

Here in the UK we bemoan the failure of train operators and Network Rail to collaborate. We should look at Montreal. There they have nineteen different transport firms operating from one, shared hub. With one payment card, OPUS, they jointly run 3,000 buses, and an underground network. By sharing the data, the systems, and their working space they have seen a 12 per cent increase in ridership across public transport.

What about driverless cars? Who should be in charge? Again it must be a collaborative process. Milton Keynes is a key test bed for several of the pilot projects. The council is working closely with central government agencies as it tests the different technologies, together with the automotive sector. From that work will emerge the best practical answers as to how automation can be applied to motoring and where the demand lies—so how to set the rules of the road.

There’s a wider lesson here for national politicians. Central Government is best placed to create the environment within which other partners can deliver both hard infrastructure like major road and rail schemes, and the software and sensors needed to future proof capital projects. However, it has to be a collaborative process and one which recognises the opportunities for UK cities and also the potential commercial benefits for UK firms selling their know-how abroad.

That’s why I think the old debates about Whitehall versus City Hall are as relevant today as a Betamax video recorder. We’ve moved on. Smarter Cities and their future development are a collaborative venture, aimed to ensure that our cities work better for us all.


With the support of Atkins, Prospect hosted a panel discussion at the 2016 Conservative Party Conference on smart cities and intelligent transport in an era of devolution. The discussion was chaired by Jon Bernstein, Associate Editor for Prospect. Speakers included: Jason Pavey, Local Transport Director, Atkins; Mark Prisk MP, Member, Communities and Local Government Committee and Chair, Smart Cities APPG; Laura Shoaf, Managing Director, Transport for West Midlands (TfWM); and Dr Jeni Tennison, CEO, Open Data Institute (ODI).

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