Andrew Carter is the Chief Executive of Centre for Cities
The race to be our next Prime Minister is almost at an end.
His legacy will inevitably hinge on his ability – or lack of – to deliver Brexit. But he must not allow this to distract him from the important domestic issues that have been allowed to fall by the wayside since the referendum. Social care, housing, education, and infrastructure are all in urgent need of attention.
Cities are central to addressing these issues. Despite accounting for just nine per cent of UK land, cities are home to 54 per cet of people, 60 per cent of jobs, and 62 per cent of Gross Value Added. The Conservative Party’s heartlands may be out in the leafy shires, but anybody hoping to govern as a One Nation Prime Minister must have a programme for government for Britain’s thirty six million city-dwellers.
Doing this will have an additional national benefit; studies have shown that the prosperity of Britain’s towns is intrinsically linked to the economic performance of their nearest cities, where many town dwellers work.
To improve the lives of people living in both cities and towns, here is what he should do:
Fix the council funding crisis
A decade of spending cuts has been hard on councils. Despite being home to just over half of the population, urban councils have shouldered almost three quarters of local government cuts. This works out as a £386 cut in services for every city resident, compared to just £172 per person elsewhere.
Some of these cuts have made councils leaner and more efficient. But they are now limiting their ability to deliver public services or support economic growth. Their social care responsibilities are also making a bad problem worse as councils are cutting non-statutory services to pay for care.
Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson have both pledged to spend more money on public services; this must also apply to local government. But councils’ funding problems are not just about money – they are also about power. Currently, local authorities have limited discretion in how they raise and spend money. The next Prime Minister should give them more freedom to manage their finances. This includes giving them the power to levy new charges such as tourist taxes, and allowing them to set multi-year budgets.
Improve urban transport
The transport debate is dominated by plans to better connect cities: HS2, Northern Powerhouse Rail, and a third runway at Heathrow all serve this purpose.
These are important projects, but 85% of people working in England’s largest conurbations also live in them. Their commutes are all too often expensive, uncomfortable and congested; a reality that should not be overlooked by the next Prime Minister.
Franchising buses, bringing suburban rail networks under metro mayoral control, and simplifying fares may not offer politicians their high-vis and hard hat photo opportunity, but they are essential steps to improving the commute for millions of people. Getting more people out of their cars and onto public transport will also improve cities’ air quality.
Target housebuilding where it is needed
The next Prime Minister should understand that the housing crisis is not a ‘national’ challenge, and plan new homes accordingly. The cost of living is relatively affordable in many parts of the country. But several high-demand cities have been unresponsive to the influx of new residents.
To address this problem, the next Prime Minister should overhaul the planning process and move towards a flexible zonal system, similar to that used in Japan. This will remove unnecessary bureaucracy and silence many of the Nimbys holding back the building of much-needed homes in high-demand areas.
He should also reassess the Government’s commitment to mass homeownership. I know that this will be a difficult pill for many Conservatives to swallow, but measures to subsidise homeownership, such as Help to Buy, are inflating demand and pushing up housing costs. It is time to step up efforts to build more affordable, secured, rented accommodation in high-demand places such as London, Bristol, Cambridge, and Brighton.
Sell cities as global destinations for investment
A final thing that the next Prime Minister must do to improve the lives of people living and working in cities is to champion them as world-leading places to invest and do business.
He should take advantage of the world-leading status of cities, such as London, Cambridge, and Oxford, and make clear that all of Britain’s cities are open to overseas investment – especially cities outside the South East. Encouraging more private investment into cities across the country will be vital if we are to solve Britain’s productivity problem. Currently just two cities outside the South East boast productivity above the national average. Supporting more investment in high-skill jobs and firms will help address this, and will deliver on the ‘Global Britain’ we have been promised.
It is ironic that, at the same time as Brexit distracted Westminster from the domestic agenda, this Government’s enthusiasm for devolution of domestic issues dried up. Encouragingly, both leadership contenders have confirmed their support for more devolution, and for the first time in history, the likely next prime minister is a former elected mayor.
Boris Johnson’s time as London Mayor gives us some clues about his plans for devolution: he was a vocal supporter of the need for greater fiscal devolution to councils. He should not forget this if he gets the keys to Number 10.
Irrespective of who wins this leadership race, the next occupant of Downing Street has a big to-do list waiting. If he champions devolution as part of the solution, then the challenge of dealing with it does not have to fall just to him – he should seize it.