Growing cities: invest now or pay later

Towns which were doing well in 1901 are still the best now; lack of progress is hard to turn around.

Investment in skills and infrastructure has a crucial bearing on the long run growth prospects of city economies. It did in the 20th century and it will in the 21st century. But the UK still falls well behind other countries, particularly the Nordic ones, when it comes to investment in education, and spend on transport has fallen sharply in recent years.

Centre for Cities latest report Cities Outlook 1901 provides new insight into urban economies at the beginning of the 20th century to understand how and why cities have changed, and crucially what policy makers can do to improve the prospects of cities for the future.

It tells us that history matters. Over the course of the 20th century the importance of major ports and manufacturing centres declined as the economy shifted towards services. Liverpool, once the UK’s second city, now ranks in the bottom 20 per cent for overall economic performance.

Cities are not prisoners of their past; urban economies evolve and adapt to changing economic circumstances. But this change often takes decades. Economic outcomes are the result of the complex interaction of many factors, from a city’s skills base and industrial profile to its links with other cities and the nature of global economic change.

Policy nevertheless has an important role to play. One of the most important factors in determining economic success of a city since 1901 was its skills base: towns and cities with higher level skills in 1901 have tended to do much better over the long run. This highlights that government needs to ensure the skills system is fit for purpose and continues to adapt to the needs of a rapidly changing global economy.

Whilst overall the gap has widened between the North and South over the 20th century, several cities have bucked wide spatial trends. Preston, Warrington and Swindon have seen their relative position improve dramatically. Investment in roads, railways, new homes and business premises facilitated the growth and diversification of these economies. And today these cities are some of the best performing in the country.

The overly centralised nature of governance in the UK further compounds the problem as cities have limited ability to respond in ways that reflect their economic history and unique circumstances today. The latest City Deals marks one of the biggest shifts towards greater devolution to cities but there’s still a long way to go.

The findings reinforce the importance of investing in the fundamental drivers of growth to get the UK firmly on the road to economic recovery and growth. The sad fact is though, while it has long been recognised, the UK falls well behind international economies when it comes to investment in these areas. Relative to GDP, Denmark invests 1.5 times more in education than the UK.

In the short-term, spending cuts on these key drivers of urban growth will stifle the UK recovery and cost more in the long run. The UK must invest now or it will pay later.

Tower Bridge, circa 1900. Photograph: Getty Images

Naomi Clayton is a senior analyst at Centre for Cities

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.