Cities are key to the open, globalised economy, and governments both in the UK and around the world know (or should know) that centralising more and more power, money and control in the centre is bad governance and bad businessMark Kleinman
04 December 2019
How election pledges favour towns at the expense of Britain's cities
MARK KLEINMAN: With election battleground seats in Britain’s towns, are cities being sidelined by the political parties?
The Policy Institute is producing a series of comment pieces analysing election manifesto pledges from the different parties across a range of policy areas. Read the full series here.
Over the past three and a half years, the reputation of the UK state as a competent actor – to bring together a divided country, to represent different nations and regions, and to act as an effective negotiator and policy entrepreneur on the world stage – has suffered serious damage. Both the 2016 EU referendum itself and the Brexit process that has followed has exposed major fault lines in the supposedly unitary British state. In the referendum, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain, while England and Wales voted to leave. London and the cores of other major cities wanted to stay, while towns and rural areas were more likely to want Brexit.
The general election is therefore an opportunity for political parties to set out their stall on the future shape of the United Kingdom. If Brexit means “taking back control” from Brussels, where will that greater control end up? Surely not as yet more power in Whitehall and Westminster, twin engines of one of the most centralised democratic states in the world?
The Lib Dems are not afraid of using the F-word, saying they “want home rule for each of the nations of a strong, federal and united United Kingdom…We will champion a federal future for the UK". Just in case the repetition of “united” with both lower and upper case wasn’t clear enough, the manifesto goes on to advocate Scotland remaining a part of the UK, and committing the party to opposing a second independence referendum.
The Conservatives are more vague, promising to uphold and strengthen devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, while “realising the benefits” of the four nations working together. Labour are vaguer still, promising to “safeguard the future of a devolved UK”. Neither party is prepared to entertain the idea of a federal state for the UK.
What about devolution in a wider sense, pushing power and resource down from Westminster and Whitehall to sub-national level, particularly cities, now seen as the drivers of national and global economies? Textual analysis of the three manifestos is revealing: “cities” are mentioned 11 times in the Conservative manifesto, and just three times in the Labour one, but they are outscored in both documents by “towns”, which have five mentions in the Labour manifesto and no less than 17 in the Conservative one. For the Lib Dems, it’s a low-scoring cities (two) and towns (one), but to be fair, “devolution” is mentioned 26 times by the Lib Dems, more than double the Labour and Tory score combined.
For this election, towns and regions, rather than cities, are where it is at. Many of the battleground seats are in Britain’s towns. Both the Labour and Conservative manifestos talk about “levelling up” across the UK. The Conservatives promise “a new deal for towns” with a new Towns Fund, while Labour promises to “shift the political centre of gravity” away from London and the South East and to build up the regional offices of government.
All this is understandable. Much of the pain of economic restructuring over the last 40 years, and imposed austerity over the last 10, has fallen on the UK’s ex-industrial towns and small cities. Support, investment and long-term planning is needed to help these places and the people who live there achieve their potential.
But what is lacking in all three manifestos is a wider perspective. This perspective would recognise the importance of re-balancing the economy with the realities for the UK of what being a medium-sized trading and services-based economy entails, especially one on the cusp of leaving the world’s most successful free-trading and economically integrated cross-national arrangement. Flows of goods, services, people and ideas drive the world economy, and much of this is channelled, located, co-ordinated and regulated through cities. The competition gets ever-more intense. For the UK to flourish it will need to make the most of its cities as key locations for these global economic processes.
Cities are key to the open, globalised economy, and governments both in the UK and around the world know (or should know) that centralising more and more power, money and control in the centre is bad governance and bad business. But the indications so far are that Brexit will lead to yet more centralisation.
Our major cities outside London continue to punch well below their weight despite their previous role as centres of innovation and enterprise. National government relies on London as a cash cow, whose fiscal surplus can meet needs elsewhere. This ignores the need both to invest in and promote other urban engines of growth, and also risks undermining the role of London – the world’s number one Global City – from government overlooking the need to keep investing and supporting the capital in order to maintain its pole position. An open letter last month from many of London’s leaders (and would-be leaders) in the public, private and non-profit sectors stated simply “London and the rest of UK depend on each other for their success". The signatories called on all parties in the general election to devolve fiscal and other powers from Whitehall to cities and regions in the UK.
Last month I was in Shanghai, which in the early 1990s lacked any kind of urban metro. Now it has the largest metro system in the world with 676 km of route and is the second largest by number of stations (413). By comparison, the London network has 400 km of track and 270 stations. As the urbanist Joe Berridge says: “we are seeing fresh energy and experimentation in cities around the world, and an unprecedented global exchange of ideas, strategies and projects.” Our would-be national leaders seem not to be interested in cities right now, but plenty of other places are, and this has important consequences for the UK in the future.
Mark Kleinman is Professor of Public Policy at the Policy Institute, King’s College London.