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Politicians are talking cities – but are they really thinking cities?

Words are cheap.

By Andrew Carter

Towards the end of June, the Chancellor emerged in Manchester wearing a hard hat, to announce his vision to build a “Northern Powerhouse”. At the time, nobody could have imagined that he was opening the gates to what would become a flurry of city-related policy declarations.

Politicians from all sides were soon making pledges to rebalance the economy, to devolve powers, or to invest in the infrastructure, innovation and skills needed to reinvigorate under-performing regional economies. All this is thoroughly welcome, and well overdue.

But just because the parties are now all talking cities, are they really thinking cities? And are there dangers lurking beneath the veneer of grand promises and shiny pots of money?

There are many pleasing aspects to be found in both these announcements, and in the sum of their parts. Andrew Adonis’ Growth Review, for instance, makes an important case for reforming the geography of the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) between councils and business, so that they match the scale of their economy. It also prudently advocates for more combined authorities, offering stronger democratic governance and the economies of scale needed for leaders to effect real change in their cities and regions.

There is no doubt that the Chancellor’s ambition to channel significant government investment into improving high-speed rail connections, both to and within northern city-regions, holds the potential to improve their economic performance and living standards. Similarly, it was welcome to see the Deputy Prime Minister’s “Northern Futures” speech placing consultation with local leadership at its heart, in recognition that Whitehall doesn’t have all the answers.

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So there’s an enormous degree of common ground between the major parties – agreement on both the issues at hand, and on how best to tackle the problems besetting the geographical disparities in the UK’s economic performance. Each party brings its own world view to the table, of course. But all sides seem prepared to face up to the fact that the status quo – whereby Britain holds the unfortunate title of being one of the most centralised democratic nations in the world – simply isn’t working for the British people, or the British economy, any longer.

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There are many pleasing aspects to be found in each of these announcements, and in the sum of their parts. And yet, each also revealed a level of timidity, and a distinct lack of detail around how the radical changes needed to drive widespread prosperity would be achieved.

Three aspects in particular are troubling. First, the persisting tendency to conflate the funding of city-level projects with devolving power; while increased funding is welcome, it is not devolution.

Second is the tendency to think of city policy as if it stands alone. Both major parties have proposed putting greater funding towards some of the long-term strategic levers underpinning future national economic growth, such as innovation and skills. But they continue to present their cities policies as somehow distinct and different from the delivery of these policy areas. They are not.

Third is the unwillingness of both major parties to endorse the fiscal devolution outlined in the recent report from the Communities & Local Government Select Committee. This will be fundamental to ensuring city-regions or combined authorities can respond effectively to the challenges faced by their communities.

The concern is that parties have embraced the rhetoric, but remain hesitant to commit to action. But for the ambitions of devolution – and the positive economic and social changes it could bring – to be realised, it will be absolutely essential for these announcements to translate into genuine policy pledges in their respective election manifestos.

This is where the “Think Cities” campaign comes in. Over the past six months, the Centre for Cities has been bringing together voices from all levels of politics, academia and industry, with the goal of propelling cities to the front and centre of the political agenda. Over the coming months, we’ll be holding events in cities across the UK, providing a forum for council leaders, policymakers, captains of industry and the broader public to build clear visions and priorities for the future of their local economies. All this will help cities to articulate their needs to Westminster, feeding into the development of party manifestos and the government’s Autumn Statement.

Politicians cannot afford to ignore these voices. Exclusive research conducted by ComRes for the Centre for Cities revealed that almost three-quarters (73 per cent) of people in marginal seats would support greater powers for local government in their area. Only a third (33 per cent) of people believe their local government currently has sufficient tools and powers to improve their local economy.

With nearly two thirds of key marginal seats in city-regions, it’s clear the 2015 general election will be staged in urban battlegrounds. All parties would be wise to heed the momentum building for real political and economic change.

Andrew Carter is the head of research at the Centre for Cities.

This is a preview of our new sister publication, CityMetric. We’ll be launching its website soon – in the meantime, you can follow it on Twitter and Facebook.