Greg Clark is Minister for Cities and MP for Tunbridge Wells.
George Osborne gave a notable speech in Manchester on Monday in which he set out a big agenda for transport, science and civic leadership. He made many far-reaching proposals – including a high speed rail link connecting the great cities and towns across the Pennines from Liverpool to Hull; accelerating our programme of City Deals, and London style mayors for metropolitan areas with the types of powers that Boris Johnson has.
But there were two other important features of the Chancellor’s speech. He emphasised the importance of neighbouring local authorities pulling together to put longstanding rivalries aside to work for the prosperity of their wider area – citing the co-operation between the City of Manchester and Cheshire East councils to build and promote a Science Corridor in which research-based companies and laboratories cluster.
And the Chancellor’s speech was striking in its bipartisanship. He gave generous acknowledgement to the work of two Labour Party figures, Sir Richard Leese, the longstanding Leader of the City of Manchester, and Joe Anderson, the Mayor of Liverpool. Anderson reciprocated by congratulating the Chancellor on his “ bold plan”.
Both these features have a wide international support. In most areas, the administrative boundaries of towns and cities don’t coincide with how people live and travel to work. So successful places bring boroughs together with their suburbs and rural hinterland. The OECD has showed recently that places that work most closely with their neighbours are more conducive to growth than those that are fragmented.
Similarly across the world, one of the strengths of cities, when well run, is increasingly recognised as being their focus on the practical rather than getting bogged down in ideological spats. Benjamin Barber, the American author, quotes Teddy Kollek, the former mayor of Jerusalem, as saying: “if you spare me your sermons, I’ll fix you your sewers”. City leaders from Michael Bloomberg to Boris exemplify this approach of bringing people together. And the failed exceptions, like Derek Hatton’s Liverpool, point powerfully to the right approach for civic leadership.
The Chancellor was talking about the northern cities, but his case applies to other places in the country. Take the City of Coventry and the County of Warwickshire. The City is currently Labour controlled, the County Conservative-led. While the county and the city – and the towns and villages within the county – have their own identities and needs, it is undoubtedly the case that the prosperity of the city and the county reinforce each other. A more prosperous Coventry would mean a more successful Warwickshire. There are strong advantages in working together, whatever the different current politics of the administrations.
This wasn’t always done. In the not so distant past, relations between the city and county were fractious – jeopardising the attractiveness of the area for potential investments. Increasingly, however, the areas of strong mutual interest are coming to the fore. Izzi Seccombe, the Warwickshire Conservative Leader, took up her post on the same day, a year ago, as Ann Lucas, the Labour Leader of Coventry. Coventry and Warwickshire’s Local Enterprise Partnership – on which both women serve – has submitted a joint proposal to the Local Growth Fund which gives local employers across both Coventry and Warwickshire much greater influence on skills training in local colleges to ensure that the successful advanced manufacturing sector can count on the labour it needs as its order books burgeon. There is also a joint submission between the County and the City to improve the rail link between Coventry, Bedworth and Nuneaton.
Izzi Seccombe – the first woman ever to lead Warwickshire – has said she will work with Ann Lucas – the first woman to lead Coventry – with joint objectives: to drive forward the prosperity of Coventry and Warwickshire. Next month, the first results of the Local Growth Fund will be announced: funds transferred from the control of central government to be put under the control of cities, town and counties. The response from across the country has been extraordinary – plans submitted that demonstrate more leverage, bringing in private sector investment, than centrally administered spending typically achieve. In a tightly fought competition, the close and cross party cooperation between Warwickshire and Coventry – following the model that George Osborne commended – is a big advantage.