Delivering on the cities challenge

By Martin Ford | 08 May 2019

Growing local economies has been and will always be core to the role of authorities in cities across the country. Achieving the virtuous circle of a thriving economy to improve the wellbeing of its residents, which in turn further drives growth is the ultimate ambition of most councils.

However, with Brexit looming on the horizon, accompanied by continued economic uncertainty as successive deadlines are pushed back, maintaining a prosperous city to attract investment and talent is a challenging ask for any UK chief executive.

Against this backdrop the Core Cities chief executives were united to join The MJ at a round table debate, supported by PwC on ‘boosting city growth and creating opportunities for all post-Brexit’. As Dan Burke of PwC said: ‘The chief executives of the Core Cities have exciting and positive visions for the future. They describe places where creative people want to come and build businesses and careers, while investment in digitally enabled public services ensures everyone benefits and growth is fair and inclusive. The challenge is delivering on this and making these strategies real.’

There was broad agreement among the chief executives that the result of the Brexit vote signalled an appetite among the public for a shift in the political system, and devolution of further power to cities and city regions.

One delegate said: ‘Devolving power is the only way people can influence the decisions that affect their lives – if that isn’t resolved, we will have a massive problem in terms of our democracy.’

Another agreed: ‘Brexit is a consequence of a disconnect between large swathes of the public and decision taken in Government. There will be problems around the border, but that’s not the big challenge.’

A third said: ‘We are going through such seismic change, and what we did before doesn’t meet that challenge. We have got to think quite differently, turning central and local government on its head.’

One chief executive saw it as a more widespread issue. They said: ‘How are things going to change for people globally? The current institutions haven’t worked for them. I don’t think the current system is working for us in England particularly. It’s a live issue for all of us at the moment.’

Another said devolving funding for skills was vital to their agenda of co-designing services with local people. ‘It’s still pretty difficult to redesign the system,’ they said.

The sentiment chimed with another chief executive, who said: ‘If we are going to invest in anything, it’s skills. We need to invest to Brexit-proof our cities – it’s more about redefining our partnership with central Government and seeing how money is spent differently in the future.

‘We have been a city that has been held back for too long. Tourism has grown exponentially. We have done a lot of work on our branding in tourism in the international market.

‘What we are finding is that we are running out of skills – we can’t train people quickly enough, We export a third of our people to university and only get back a third of those.’

The chief executive of an authority based in a city with a well-respected university said it did indeed play a crucial role in the success of its economic strategy.

‘Universities have a strong role in shaping our economies. We see our economy being driven by entrepreneurial students, we need to keep more of them but we have a high level of start-ups,’ they said.

However, another was more dubious of the long-term future in such a strategy. ‘I’m confident our universities are increasingly going to be over-reliant on overseas students,’ they said.

For others, it was about creating employment opportunities outside of the academic arena: ‘We are asking companies what are you doing about different entry levels for people without a degree?’

Many of the chief executives arrived fresh from real estate exhibition and conference, MIPIM, where they had been pursuing investment in their cities.

They agreed the importance of creating a ‘brand’ has emerged recently as key to both investment and attracting talent in the form of skilled workers and businesspeople to their cities.

‘If we are playing in a global economy, we have got to behave in a way that we can compete against some voracious competitors,’ one delegate pointed out.

‘Try to think about differences, rather than similarities, how we use our differences to stand out, offered another.

One chief executive said: ‘Our role is to create that place that captures people who could go anywhere in the world.

‘We are representing regions, but the thing that makes us recognisable is our brand as cities.

Tapping into the ‘intangible’ character of a city that instilled loyalty from its residents was advocated by one delegate. They said: ‘The key is not being like lots of other cities but playing to our strengths. A lot of young people are buying into lifestyles. There’s an opportunity for our cities and city regions to capture those intangibles in the city brand – they are really important to attracting and retaining talent.’

Although major infrastructure projects were under way in one of the cities represented at the table, its chief executive said their focus for economic growth was elsewhere.

‘It’s not about the big stuff, it’s getting the everyday economy working,’ they said. Historically, the city found it had suffered from economic inactivity in its population as a result of poor health. As a result, targeted health improvements, including through the use of emerging technology, had yielded economic benefits for the city.

‘Enabling people to take control of their lives is the key test of success for us – it’s about impacting on outcomes for people,’ the delegate said. ‘You can use technology for much wider things than economic growth.’

For another of the delegates, the intrinsic link between growth in the local economy and the welfare of residents stemmed from their council’s use of ethical procurement to drive change alongside trade unions and apprenticeship schemes.

‘Fundamentally, our communities work, but they could work more productively,’ they said. ‘We are driving our economy up the value chain and up the social ladder in that direction.

‘Technology has a massive role to play in prevention. Public service reform is about prevention, it makes services more affordable as it drives down demand.’

Another delegate said their authority had switched its priorities to spreading growth – and its attendant benefits – to the communities on the fringe of the city.

They told the delegates: ‘The shift has been away from growth to how to deliver for areas of deprivation on our doorstep. The plan is to continue to create jobs, the puzzle is how to make that work for our communities two miles away.’

Picking up the topic of technological innovation, one chief executive said: ‘There’s a theme of improvement that runs across all our cities. We are all at the forefront of that smart, digital agenda.’

Another delegate said ‘digital’ had become too broad a term, making its use by fellow chief executives redundant.

They said: ‘We should stop talking about ‘digital’ as a thing and break down what we mean by the skills you need. Our conversation is totally different to the one that’s being had by young people.’

Participants at The MJ / Core Cities round table debate

Suzanne Wylie, Belfast City Council

Dawn Baxendale, Birmingham City Council

Mike Jackson, Bristol City Council

Tom Riordan, Leeds City Council

Tony Reeves, Liverpool City Council

Joanne Roney, Manchester City Council

Pat Ritchie, Newcastle City Council

Ian Curryer, Nottingham City Council

John Mothersole, Sheffield City Council

Paul Orders, Cardiff City Council

Gareth Newell, Cardiff City Council

Annemarie O’Donnell, Glasgow City Council

Will Mapplebeck, Core Cities

Chris Murray, Core Cities

Dan Burke, PwC

Dan Dowling, PwC

Heather Jameson, The MJ (chair)

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Infrastructure Economic growth Core Cities Skills Brexit Inclusive Growth