Cities at the heart of devolution
David Skelton is the Director of Renewal, a campaign organisation aiming to broaden the appeal of the Conservative Party. Follow David on Twitter.
Devolving power further needs to be at the core of a future Conservative offering. And cities need to be at the core of this new wave of devolution. ‘Trusting the people’ and empowering cities will be a fundamental element to balanced economic growth and urban revival over the next few decades. A devolution of power to cities must be a fundamental part of the Tory agenda for the next decade.
Most of the high growth during the Blair years benefited only the South East of England and failed to reach the low-paid. Although economic growth was over 11 per cent between 2003 and 2008, real incomes actually stagnated and the North-South divide widened. That can’t be allowed to happen again and empowering our cities is a real way of delivering economic growth that benefits everybody.
Edward Glaeser, in his superb ‘Triumph of the City’ has set out why the city will be at the core of economic growth in a globalised economy. And the more autonomy and power a city has, the more likely it is to pull in talent and investment and to become a thriving centre of regional economic growth. The Government’s ‘City Deals’ represent a great start to making that happen and they provide a real platform to Government should be ready to devolve powers over planning and welfare to work to cities, in a way that will give our great cities the ability to innovate and promote job creation.
The role of central Government should be to ensure that our cities have the right transport and digital infrastructure to be able to flourish. Devolving powers over welfare conditionality would enable cities to take active steps to help people back into work. Cities should follow the example of Preston, which was the third fastest growing city in the UK between 1998 and 2008 because it was able to adopt a much more liberal planning policy, meaning that businesses were much more likely to invest there.
If cities in the North and Midlands did adopt a more liberal planning policy, it would stand in stark contrast to parts of the South who seem completely resistant to further development. Allowing cities to expand, so that good quality homes could be provided within easy reach of all the amenities of a big city could tempt workers and companies sick of the cramped South East to relocate to the North or Midlands.
It's also clear that the most successful cities globally are those with strong leadership figures who can represent the city both nationally and internationally. Despite badly mishandling the referenda for directly elected mayors, the Tories should again make the case for an elected Mayor with proper powers,
Over the next few years, Conservatives should look to be even more ambitious in devolving real powers to cities. If Government is ready to give up real powers to our cities, then these cities will be culturally vibrant centres of renewed economic growth.
This piece appears as part of a collection of essays on the future of local government collated by the New Local Government Network.