At the right level

By Jonathan Werran | 17 March 2021
  • Jonathan Werran

The COVID-19 pandemic has proven the resilience and strength of England’s local government in keeping our communities safe. Equally, the ongoing socio-economic consequences demonstrate the need for strong place-based leadership and governance at the right level to help our recovery.

This is especially true for Oxford, one of our country’s leading cities and one that has a global impact and leadership role in areas such as medical science and biotech.  The city’s unique strength and assets as the prime national knowledge economy hub have been reinforced by the success of the Astra-Zeneca Vaccine. Oxford must and will, therefore, be a focal point for post-pandemic and post-Brexit growth.

Oxford is also a key part of the Oxford-Cambridge Arc, and with GVA of £6.75bn per annum one of the few parts of UK that makes a net contribution to Exchequer.   Faced with the need for robust social and economic strategies for recovery, there is an imperative to make a clear case for strong urban leadership driving renewal from the pandemic.

With strong city-led governance, Oxford is able to use its unique assets and particular strengths to recover stronger than before. Focusing these assets in the right direction will streamline the city’s local levelling up efforts.

With this in mind, Localis’s report, At the Right Level – a strategic case for city-led growth, innovation and renewal, presents Oxford’s case for city governance as a compact global city as the best means for retaining and building on this strategic regional and national advantage.

As a council, Oxford City Council has proven that they are a committed leader in collaborating with strategic partners to serve the interest of local communities, support regional growth and deliver strategic national objectives.  One of the thoughts that has underpinned the ambitions of Oxford City Council and that of its key partners for an inclusive economy is that economic growth in and of itself will not reduce inequalities. The city council must be empowered in order to act as a genuine convening partner for partnerships promoting sustainable and inclusive growth within the city. 

There is a need to seize the initiative in searching for and implementing the correct interventions to help guide the process towards imbedding inclusivity within the local economy. Good growth is where the need for deeper collaborative working and meaningful engagement between the different key stakeholders of the local state, including business, government partners, and local community, is paramount. Equally, defining how this engagement works, and what it means for each stakeholder will ensure that recovery occurs through good growth

Clean growth is a vital part of good growth, and they need to be taken together to be successful. Economic and environmental aspects of growth cannot be addressed effectively unless there is an integrated approach to place. There is an imperative to align strategies, given clean growth links closely to health and wellbeing and physical infrastructure in place. For its part, the city council recognise this and alignment is occurring through the establishment of a Zero Carbon Oxford Partnership involving all of the city's major businesses and institutions

In order to truly deliver a good growth recovery, Localis argues that city governance is needed for good growth within Oxford, sustainable science-led economic success whose benefits will spread far beyond its boundaries to the Ox-Cam Arc and wider, to the national and international level.

As a city of regional importance, we have to situate Oxford as a compact global city within the aegis of governance frameworks not just vested in Oxford City Council but also extending sub-regionally to those of Oxfordshire County Council and OXLEP and regionally to the nationally vital Ox-Cam Arc.  This would provide sufficient power and resource at the right level to allow the city to deliver for its residents and to further accelerate the growth potential of the arc and the county.

To grow at city level, Oxford needs the ability to raise local levies to fund placemaking efforts.  Both on businesses, in a manner similar to the provisions laid out in the Business Rates Supplement Act, and on residents, in a progressive manner using council tax bands as a guide.

Localis also calls for a long-term £1bn endowment fund for supporting good growth within the city. This would address the central issue of budgetary uncertainty and would form of a single long-term investment strategy for city-led growth.

Such a deal would give Oxford City Council power to:

  • target investment in key physical and transport infrastructure requirements;
  • build the capacity needed to develop a skills supply chain;
  • give strategic planning powers relating to Oxford’s decarbonisation targets, and;
  • allow for city led investment strategies on social, digital, and smart energy infrastructure.

In the city’s relationship with the county and the Ox-Cam Arc, co-decision powers with Oxfordshire County Council on local transport infrastructure decisions would be helpful.  In similar vein, some strategic planning powers for the city council, specifically on the ability to go further within the city than national and regional targets dictate for planning standards and design codes relating to good growth targets would be of benefit.

Jonathan Werran is chief executive, Localis


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