Andrew Carter is Chief Executive of the think tank Centre for Cities.
The vultures may be increasingly circling for Theresa May, yet it remains to be seen whether the will bring about her imminent downfall – or whether she will continue to limp on for another few years.
What is clear, however, is that whoever leads the Tory party into the next decade will need to address one of the biggest weaknesses of May’s administration: the lack of a domestic policy programme or vision for what kind of country Britain will be outside the EU.
In particular, to bolster its meagre majority, the Conservative leadership needs a policy platform to win over the two groups which it lost most ground to Labour at the general election: young people and urban voters. Indeed, the concerns of these two groups are increasingly conjoined, as Britain’s young population has become progressively more urban in the past two decades.
Loosening Labour’s grip in cities shouldn’t be as difficult for the Conservatives as it might first appear. It’s now largely forgotten that the Tories actually increased their share of the vote in many of Labour’s traditional urban heartlands last June, winning seats in Mansfield, Middlesbrough and Walsall.
Moreover, a swing of just 358 votes would have secured the Conservatives four extra seats in Labour city strongholds such as Dudley North, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Keighley and Ashfield. How can the Tories make the breakthrough in these places and in other cities?
Firstly, it needs to offer policies which recognise the distinct challenges – and opportunities – which cities in different parts of the country face.
Take the housing crisis, for example. This is not a national issue – it’s specifically a problem for cities in the South of England, where economic buoyancy has resulted in demand for housing far outstripping supply. Nor is the Tory leadership blind to this fact, with Philip Hammond emphasising in his Budget speech the need to build homes in London and the Greater South East in particular.
The problem is that current Conservative housing policy fails to apply this recognition, and is actually exacerbating the problem by increasing demand without addressing supply (an issue recently acknowledged by Sajid Javid, the Housing Secretary). For example, the cuts to stamp duty announced in the Budget will help some first-time buyers, but will do little to get more new homes built. The same applies to the £10bn additional investment for the Help-to-Buy scheme announced at last Tory conference.
To build the homes that cities in the South need, we need to make more land available in these places, and brownfield land is too scare to provide a solution to this problem.
Instead, a genuinely radical Tory policy pledge would be to reverse the party’s continued refusal to countenance greenbelt development. Releasing just five percent of the green belt close to existing infrastructure around the ten least affordable cities would unlock land for 1.4 million homes in the cities where they are needed most.
This would be undoubtedly be contentious (to say the least) among grassroots Tories – but would demonstrate the Conservatives’ commitment to addressing the needs of the urban voters that they need to court to make headway at the next general election.
In Northern and Midlands cities, the most urgent issue is not housing, but poor skills levels – the main reason why these cities are less productive than those in the South, struggle to attract high-skilled firms and jobs, and lag behind when it comes to living standards.
As a new Centre for Cities report shows, this will become an even bigger problem in the coming decades due to increased automation and globalisation. Cities in the North and Midlands are particularly exposed to job losses resulting from these changes, because of their large shares of routinised jobs and low-skilled workers. They are less likely to attract likely to attract higher skilled jobs in future than economically buoyant cities in the South.
There is much to be done to prevent these cities falling further behind. But the top priority for the Conservatives should be improving Further Education (FE) and lifelong learning, to ensure that working adults and future generations have the skills they need to thrive in the changing world of work.
In part this is an issue of investment, but wider reform of the FE system is also needed, especially to address the lack of local flexibility in the adult education system. While maintaining national standards targets is right, city leaders need more powers and responsibilities to shape FE provision to reflect the economic needs and conditions of their areas. Indeed, giving the metro mayors elected last year control over local over the adult education budget (AEB) was a key plank of the devolution deals agreed by the Cameron/Osborne administration.
However, the current Government has delayed hand-over of this budget until next year, to the frustration of Conservative metro mayors such as Andy Street in the West Midlands. It needs to ensure that this delay does not continue beyond this year, so that mayors and other city leaders in the North and Midlands have the resources and levers they need to tackle the skills-gaps their cities face.
Finally, the FE system needs to be simplified and focused on providing people with the industry-relevant skills they need to go into work – both key issues raised by Lord Sainsbury’s review of the sector in 2016 (full disclaimer: Lord Sainsbury is the main funder of Centre for Cities through the Gatsby Foundation). The Government initially vowed to implement the review’s recommendations by 2020, but has since acknowledged that it will not meet this target.
Getting those plans back on track will be crucial in demonstrating the Conservative Party’s commitment to putting further education on a par with higher education, and to ensuring that people in cities across the country can thrive in the changing world of work. This should take precedence over misguided attempts to win over young voters by tinkering with tuition fees, an issue on which the Conservatives will always be outflanked by Labour on anyway.
With UKIP falling apart, and a Labour party led by Jeremy Corbyn unlikely to gain much ground in Tory shires, we can expect the Conservatives to maintain their dominance in rural areas for the foreseeable future. Instead, urban Britain could be the key political battleground at the next general election.
Whoever leads the Conservative Party into that campaign needs to gamble some of its political capital on winning over young, urban voters – even if that comes at the expense of speaking to its traditional base.