Tuesday’s fringe event at the Labour Conference bought together a panel of Shadow Ministers, city leaders and urban experts with a very engaged audience to discuss and debate some of the most pressing issues for cities.
Here are some of the key points raised:
Beyond the ‘Full Monty’ depiction of cities. The image of cities conjured up by the Sheffield film about a group of unemployed men turned strippers is ‘long gone’ and cities are recognised by many as the ‘engines of our economy’. The national economy is only the sum of its parts – and, as our statistics show, cities form a large part of the equation. Supporting cities is in the ‘national interest not special interest’. But there’s still a lot of work to be done.
From physical capital to human capital. Perceptions of many cities have been changed somewhat by the physical regeneration of city centres. The transformation of Liverpool city centre is certainly striking. But regeneration needs to extend beyond physical development to the development of human capital. Are the businesses there to fill Liverpool’s new high grade office spaces? Are the city’s residents able to access the jobs and wages that make the city centre’s new shops affordable?
Getting the ‘green light for growth’. As the North and Midlands are hit hard by the public sector cuts, ‘the government needs to commit to regeneration and the North’. There was consensus in the room that cities need more power and resources to support economic growth. There has been much rhetoric about devolution – cities now need to ‘take matters into their own hands and make the case to government for what they need’. Is the introduction of LEPs and Enterprise Zones a step in the right direction?
Localism: lowest common denominator? ‘No city is an island’ – cities need to work with their surrounding areas to achieve economies of scale and to ensure the benefits of city growth are realised beyond their municipal boundaries. This means working across the functional economic area. LEPs have a clear role to here. But are seen by some as ‘penniless, powerless and potentially pointless’. Others see a ‘more mixed picture’ with LEPs needing more powers and resources behind them. Questions still remain for some on whether the Enterprise Zones, whilst acknowledged as different from the 1980s originals, will create genuine new jobs or – as one panellist put it – merely result in ‘relocation, relocation’. Big questions remain as to whether devolution is taking place to the right spatial level or whether its ‘devolution to the lowest common denominator’.
Regeneration made possible by long term strategic vision. Cities like Liverpool, it was argued, ‘would not have been bought about the regeneration of the centre without a long term planning framework’. City leaders need to avoid the short-termism political cycles can lead to and continue to deliver with strong visions for the future.
‘Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater’. City regeneration over the last decade was largely ‘property and service sector’ led but the ‘development models of the last 10 to 15 years are gone’. Over the next decade cities will need to adjust to new models of growth. But this doesn’t mean past approaches will no longer work and lessons are no longer relevant. Cities should ‘stick to the fundamentals’, be ‘open for business’ and, particularly in the current climate, be ‘financially innovative’.
The lively debate will no doubt continue throughout our events at next weeks Conservative conference.