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Why city regions must be at heart of dramatic drive for growth

Why city regions must be at heart of dramatic drive for growth

🕔17.Jul 2014

Another day and another think tank report puts the case for devolution of powers from central to local government and urges councils to work together under the banner of combined authorities.

This time it’s the turn of the City Growth Commission, whose report Connected Cities – The Link to Growth – describes why the country’s great city regions should be at the very heart of a new drive for wealth creation.

The report estimates that chronic under-investment in infrastructure, particularly transport, and remote decision-making in London, has conspired to hold back UK growth by five per cent a year for a decade.

It calls for a “more strategic, whole-system approach to capitalise on every additional pound spent on infrastructure”.

And in common with other decentralisation reports, the Growth Commission concludes that too many of the country’s cities and city regions – or metros – lack sufficiently strong governance arrangements or powers to implement policies in the interests of their particular economies.

It reaches broadly the same conclusions as a Centre for Cities study, which is behind the Think Birmingham campaign calling for fiscal devolution which the Files helped to launch yesterday.

The Growth Commission report notes: “Metros need to be at the heart of this new approach, so that they can maximise the social and environmental productivity of their place.

“City leaders need also to work in national policy making, but cities need to step up to the plate too.

“While the Chancellor recently acknowledged the trend that global cities have powerful city governments, the reality in the UK is that our major metros lack sufficient city-region governance and/or powers to implement policies in the interests of their particular economies.

“While a few leading metros are breaking away from this trend with the establishment of integrated transport authorities and Combined Authorities, other metros should demonstrate their ability to take on these risks, petitioning for more direct responsibility for network management and major transport investment as a first step.

“Only then can the UK’s metro driven economy be greater than the sum of its individual parts.”

The City Growth Commission argues that individual cities need the freedom to operate as whole systems, making decisions in the best interests of their metro, rather than relying upon national government’s inherently centralised decisions on infrastructure investment.

In turn, cities need the freedom to work together, enabling pan-regional investment for a more productive system of citiesto facilitate and share in economic growth for the UK as a whole.

Decades of centralised decision making has served to erode local government capacity, the commission report argues.

“Some leading metros are breaking away from this trend with the emergence of Combined Authorities. Some are also starting to focus on developing internal capability and capacity to deliver robust appraisals, strategic plans and long-term collaborations with other cities, regions, agencies and the private sector.”

One idea proposed by the commission would see private sector swaps between metro officials and private sector experts to learn from and share expertise, especially risk management and finance, as well as public sector swaps between local and national government officials to build expertise and experience.

Commission chair Jim O’Neill said: “Ambitious thinking is critical to boosting the long-term growth potential of non-London metro areas. With metros taking a stronger lead, enabled by greater flexibilities and freedoms to deliver, we stand the best chance of delivering city growth for the benefit of the whole UK.”

Birmingham city council leader Sir Albert Bore welcomed the commission report on behalf of the Core Cities Group.

Sir Albert said: “Jim O’Neill’s Commission shows that poorly co-ordinated transport systems are holding the UK economy back. The good news is that the measures to address this are simple. Fewer ring-fenced budgets, longer term settlements and powers that already exist for London would make a big difference.

“There is also a desperate need to build better connectivity across the UK. HS2 is a great start, but we need to get on and deliver this now and start planning a comprehensive system that connects all our great cities.

“This isn’t just about ‘the north’ in England, but Bristol and Cardiff, Edinburgh and Glasgow. By working together we will make life better for people and businesses in every UK city.”

However, Patrick Willcocks, a respected consultant on urban policy, highlighted a concern about the lack of  influence Greater Birmingham has had on the Commission report. No evidence was submitted from Greater Birmingham, no hearings were held in the city and the report features several negative examples.

The Files will shortly be returning to the theme of how Greater Birmingham can make a better contribution to national policy making.


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