1. Governance
December 9, 2019

This election will be won in towns – but its winner needs to focus on cities

By Andrew Carter

The Centre for Cities on the election and everything after.

When this general election campaign started many commentators, myself included, expected it to be one that put people in the so-called ‘left behind’ towns of England’s North and Midlands at the heart of the campaign narrative.

It certainly began that way, with both of the main parties showering people in the ‘Red Wall’ of traditionally Labour voting but Brexit-supporting towns with warm words and promises of better infrastructure and public services, and lots more money.

But despite the early rhetoric, the two main parties’ manifestos had much less to say about towns. In fact much of what they have announced will benefit people living and working in cities – from the Conservative promise of more city-region focused devolution to Labour’s plan to reduce commuter rail fares, mainly an issue in London and the South East.

We will find out next week whether the distance between the early rhetoric and manifesto reality affects how people vote. However, one thing is certain now: after a decade of cuts that have disproportionately affected cities, they are being met with scepticism by urban political leaders of all parties.

It is striking how neglected and ignored city leaders and directly elected mayors feel by Westminster. According to the 2019 Centre for Cities / Arup Urban Voices survey, just one in 10 city leaders and elected mayors are satisfied with the support they get from national government.

Transport is a particular concern to them, with almost all city leaders saying that more money needs to be invested in urban public transport. City leaders know that, in many parts of the country, bad connections are the significant cause of weak economic growth. Centre for Cities made it a key plank of our Urban Manifesto. It’s encouraging that the main parties are promising investment in transport, particularly buses. But after the election they will need to deliver to convince city leaders it’s not just election rhetoric.

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Most strikingly, climate change and air quality have risen from nowhere last year to the top of the biggest worry list for city leaders – no doubt due to the actions of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion.

As well as the Greta effect, city leaders are also worried about the Brexit effect. Almost nine in 10 city council leaders and elected mayors are concerned that their cities will not be able to get the workers they need after Britain leaves the EU.

Why do their concerns matter to this general election and beyond?

From a political perspective, city dwellers are typically less likely to vote than people in the rest of the country. Yet those city dwellers, and workers, drive the economy, accounting for around 60 per cent of the country’s jobs, business starts and GVA.

So while running a campaign around people living in small towns, otherwise known as marginal seats, may make good politics, it is bad economics.

If politicians want to make Britain a more prosperous and productive place to live then improving the economic performance of cities needs to be central to the next government’s plan.

Despite some good short to medium-term promises for cities in the main manifestos, the recognition of the unique economic role that Britain’s urban areas play in the national economy was largely absent.

Take the much-discussed British productivity problem, which is at the root of many of the doorstep issues that politicians are worried about – wages, good jobs, tax revenues. There is huge variation across the country. Cities in Southern England are almost 50 per cent more productive than cities elsewhere in the UK.

Getting more high-skilled firms to start and grow in these underperforming cities is crucial. One way to achieve this is for the next government to establish a £5bn productivity fund for councils to bid into to make their city centres more productive places to do business.

Because different cities have different challenges, access to this fund should not be overly prescriptive. In London, where people are leaving due to the high cost of living, it could be spent on housing. In cities such as Bradford or Wigan – which have suffered particularly from cuts to FE funding – it could be spent on adult education, and in other places like Barnsley and Warrington it could be spent on workspace and incubators.

While it is likely that this election will be won or lost in the towns of Northern England and the Midlands, the transformation that happens after 12 December needs to be anchored in cities. The next government must seize the initiative on this.

Andrew Carter is Chief Executive of Centre for Cities.

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