Yesterday we launched Cities Outlook 1901, a report exploring the evolution of cities across Britain from the turn of the 20th century. At the launch event, our expert panel - Sir Peter Hall, Tony Travers and Tristram Hunt MP - reflected on the report’s findings and helped build the picture of our cities’ rich histories. It was a reminder of just how vital it is that we learn from the past if future policy is to be effective.
Here are some of the key lessons shared:
· Skills matter but it’s about a mix of skills not just graduates. For many cities back in the 20th century their ability to adapt to the changing economy came down to the fact that they had a strong professional skills and an advanced engineering base. Take Swindon and Honda or Derby and Rolls Royce. The two cities were able to attract these firms because of their strong engineering backgrounds.
· The best connected cities in 1901 tended to be the strongest economically. Places connected by rail and within two hours of London were at an advantage in 1901. Newport and Doncaster are two notable exceptions, highlighting the importance of economic diversity as well as transport. In the latter half of the 20th century it was Sir James Drake's invention of the motorway that led to Preston’s and Warrington’s success; the Preston By-Pass built in 1958 was the first motorway in the country.
· Small and large cities can suffer from a lack of diversity. Smaller cities tended to be less diverse, although the stories of Birmingham and Glasgow show that large cities can become overly reliant on single industries too. For Birmingham it was the automotive sector; for Glasgow it was shipping.
· City leadership can make a big difference. The success of cities is partly down to time and chance. Places like London, Cambridge and Oxford started with a strong base and high skills in 1901 putting them in a far better position than others. But cities like Reading and Swindon demonstrate that a city can transform itself if it has the right leadership.
· Strong municipal authorities in the 19th century raised standards. The disempowerment of local government and loss of local financial autonomy coincided with deindustrialisation. The 20th century saw local government lose the capacity to make decisions and invest locally. Until this is reversed it will be very difficult for cities to reinvent themselves.
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