Alexandra Jones is the Chief Executive of Centre for Cities
It was an upbeat conference in Birmingham this week. The polls may make for tough reading for Conservatives going into the 2015 election, but this was a confident conference – and one in which the Conservatives, and the Chancellor in particular, boldly sought to seize the initiative on cities, devolution and the North-South divide.
The contrast to last week was marked. Despite all major Labour ministers mentioning cities and regions in some way, a practical vision for supporting and empowering them to grow, or even some more specific policies focusing on greater devolution of transport, skills and housing, were largely missing.
While much of the detail was also absent in Birmingham, the Chancellor was more explicit about the importance of cities and regions to the future Conservative agenda. Following on from his June speech in Manchester, the Chancellor once again asserted his ambition to build a Northern Powerhouse based on “successful business, modern high speed transport, big science investments, top universities and strong leadership that comes with powerful elected mayors”.
He was also clear that these measures, alongside further devolution, are ultimately about ensuring that “reducing the gap between North and South, London and the rest” becomes “one of the central ambitions of the next Government”.
Of course there is plenty to debate about whether the Chancellor’s lofty ambitions can or will be made reality, or whether reducing the North-South divide is possible within a generation, let alone a single Parliament. Previous Labour administrations were also entirely sincere in their drive to narrow this gap, and yet success largely eluded them – mainly due to the runaway growth of the booming capital and its surrounding areas.
But it is significant that the Chancellor has chosen to mark this out as an issue on which the Conservatives will fight next year’s Election – building on the last four years of progress in devolution to cities, and moving away from edging forward at the pace of the slowest, to a mantra of different paces for different places.
For an organisation that wants to see all parties competing on this issue, so that the next Government will have no choice but to make genuine progress in its first 100 days, it’s great to see this commitment from the Conservatives to up the game in the ‘race to the top’ on cities policy.
So where to next?
We are likely to see more on this from the Liberal Democrats next week, not least because of the Deputy Prime Minister’s commitment to the Northern Futures initiative on regenerating the North. There is also hope that the Chancellor’s forthcoming statement on metro mayors in November, and the following month’s Autumn Statement, will deliver more specifics, and take us a step further from rhetoric towards making devolution a greater reality, at least for some cities.
But the momentum from Birmingham and these upcoming milestones does leave some questions hanging for Labour. As the party in charge of most of the major UK cities, including many of those in the North, it has been relatively silent on an issue that is central to supporting economic growth and deficit reduction, as well as potentially helping give them an immediate, albeit partial, response to the constitutional debate about greater devolution to England.
This is particularly surprising in light of the Party’s recent reviews, from Adonis to the Local Government Innovation Taskforce, and the previous commitments Miliband has made to do more on this issue.
Racing to the top to make the most of cities’ potential to create jobs and drive economic growth, as well as their capacity to improve the efficiency and delivery of public services, should be a no-brainer for all parties.
To date, however, it’s the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats that have done most of the legwork on these issues, leaving Labour with some catching up to do – at least publicly – in the weeks and months ahead.