William Hampson urges the Government to be bold in devolving power to the northern cities. William is a Deputy Lieutenant of Greater Manchester, a board member of several North West social enterprises and a Freeman of Wigan. He writes in a personal capacity.
Having lived in the Wigan Borough of Greater Manchester most of my life some of my neighbours will think that writing for ConHome is misguided. Working as I do from Merseyside, to drive social enterprise and facilitate care from the North West to the frailest worldwide, I think it important that people of all political persuasions should understand the potential stored up in the region. Indeed, across the cities of Manchester and Liverpool I have friends and colleagues in the leadership of all political parties and none, that share with me that passion.
In far away Westminster this may seem a trifling point for we face testing economic times: and yet while it is now self evident that UK Plc is in recession it seems strange that the idea that our major cities are an essential building block in any putative renewal is not more widely recognised. While the Prime Minister, energetic Cities Minister Greg Clark, Manchester's dynamic Sir Howard Bernstein, and Sheffield's Nick Clegg have all said 'the North's cities matter' there is a constant danger that the siren voices of the South will take the familiar route of heaping freedoms on Cambridge, London and the South East, at the expense of not only the North West, but Yorkshire, Newcastle and the Midlands too.
I am not arguing here for handouts: Manchester University is rising in the global rankings for its hi-tec and high impact research while the Bill Gates Foundation searched out Liverpool's School for Tropical Medicine to invest millions in its world class work. Sixty-five per cent of all FTSE companies have a footprint in the North West. Meanwhile, Wigan Leisure and Culture Trust, on whose board I sit, are growing entrepreneurially across the country and the Bank of America and Bank of New York have both invested nearby. Once you know Greater Manchester and Merseyside it makes sense.
I am arguing for an even greater focus on the part of government in creating an instinctive culture of affirming that local cities know best. Large cities are significant marketplaces in their own right and have the know-how to drive their economies forward. They comprise dense relationships of friendship, mutual support and economic innovation. Unlike some local economies they have a clear identity that can be promoted internationally and especially to East Asian and Indian investors. Too often though they are constrained by those in Whitehall who see ambitious city councils and local businesses as threats rather than beacons of hope: Liverpool wants to make the most of its river, low carbon industries and its three universities. Which burdensome regulations could London lift to make this go faster? Manchester has recently done a tough but groundbreaking deal with the Treasury to be able to reinvest surpluses that it generates from its own local ingenuity. In how many other areas of its life could this city be set free to seize new shares of the international pool of investment?
Only cities are able to attract major world sporting and cultural events to the country with all the economic benefits that they bring. London is too big and Cambridge too expensive for many mid-sized international investors seeking a home for their plant and offices. And because Whitehall has smothered our cities since the mad days of Militant (if not before) they have had less space to develop local banks, venture funds and mini-stock exchanges than, say, international competitors like Chicago. We need to take further what the government have been calling 'city deals' to push things even more deeply.
And the new 'city deals' should mean an Embassy staffer in each major Embassy and High Commission charged to promote a Northern city as part of UKplc. It should mean really creative investment of big society funds targeted at entrepreneurial anti-poverty efforts in the poorest neighbourhoods of Northern cities as "laboratories" for addressing key needs. It should mean Ministers knocking the heads of major charitable foundations together to spend more of their resources in the North. It should mean defending and expanding local city 'rights' to be businesslike, driven, compassionate and not patronised by target setters at the centre. And it should acknowledge that a real city with a clear identity is a more powerful agent of future growth than areas strung along a motorway, lumped between counties or piled on top of university towns.
For while I love the whole of the country the cities of the North are a national treasure which has yet to be fully set free. Those of all parties should seize that opportunity alongside those of us working to make it a reality.