The range of issues facing the UK’s core cities may be dizzying but there is at least consistency when it comes to the challenges and opportunities.
That was the picture painted by senior officers from a range of core cities stretching from the South West to the North East of England and across the Irish Sea to Belfast.
When it came to the greatest challenge they face there was clear agreement that workforce issues are a particular headache.
In the words of one participant: ‘A big issue for us is resources – getting the people in that we need.’
Another agreed, saying: ‘We have huge workforce issues. There are particular problems with recruitment in adult social care and of social workers in children’s services.’
There was much nodding of heads around the table at the observation that a lift in salaries for the likes of home care workers was long overdue. Claiming that pay has stagnated over the last 15 years or so, one senior local government figure noted ‘the fact that wage issues are being addressed is good for people in traditionally lower paid jobs’ and it ‘will force us to take action we should have done before’.
However, a particular concern is the growing pressure on care services, which was branded ‘demographically impossible’ to deal with. Technology is seen as the obvious solution to tackling this conundrum but the skills shortage in the labour market is preventing progress.
Although voices around the table felt the problem may also rest at local government’s door.
‘People are coming through with the digital skills but, as a sector, we have old fashioned ways of working.’
Another added: ‘We have the worst of both worlds. We are a very centralised country, but we don’t have strong national plans for skills, housing and the economy.
The experience of COVID-19 has inevitably had an impact, with one city seeing a 10% growth in child poverty and others witnessing growing inequality across their patch.
‘It has been a tale of two cities, with huge disparities between the haves and have nots,’ said one.
There was agreement that while there was a need for cities to be bold and dynamic in pursuing growth there was also a need to make sure this reached every resident.
For some, COVID-19 had ‘shone a light’ on issues. One city, for example, had uncovered the high number of under-fours not ready for school. It had also heightened engagement with residents to help shape cities – something these leaders of place are fundamentally reconsidering after the experiences over the last couple of years.
‘We’ve had good engagement and built up lots of trust,’ said one participant. ‘We need to look at what cities need, not just what the market wants.’
‘There’s been lots of engagement but the challenge is how you keep that going.’
Another said they were looking at everything through ‘four prisms’. Asking residents how they want to live, the environment that they want to live in, how they want to work and how they want to play.
‘We are looking differently at regeneration,’ they said. ‘Housing has got to be green but there’s also an opportunity to rethink the regeneration we have. We need to think differently about city centres.’
This rethink of city centres was shared by others around the table. Diversifying beyond office and retail to include culture and leisure is seen as fundamental to benefits such as improved mental health.
One senior leader highlighted the link between poor health and poor productivity, while another emphasised the benefit they had experienced from having ‘partial control’ over their city centre.
‘It’s meant we’ve been able to drag in culture and leisure. COVID allowed us to deal with it but it also needed a private sector committed to doing it.’
There was clear evidence the changes taking place were having a powerfully positive impact on jobs. While one city could boast an increase of 15,000 city centre jobs this year, another could point to 5,000 new roles in digital employment alone – with around 1,000 digital opportunities advertised every week.
Offices were felt by participants to be on an inevitable downward trajectory in centres, but despite the clear pattern of diversification in what the UK’s core cities offer there was a feeling that ‘retail is not completely dead’.
One participant noted a rise in independent shops and quirky offerings. Added to this is the sense that the likes of Amazon will have opportunities to browse because ‘people still like it’.
Beyond the adjustment to more leisure and culture in our core city centres it seems there’s also a demographic change in who is living in their hearts.
‘We’re seeing more older people and families wanting to live there,’ said one chief. ‘But we hadn’t planned for the increase in dogs!’
Alongside regeneration and growth and the future of work, ‘net zero’ is another top priority for the senior leaders of the UK’s main cities. While there is a fear that challenges to this, such as housing, mean local government cannot completely fund the ambition, there is a sense that working together offered the chance to find solutions.
As one participant put it: ‘We need to remain bold and ambitious on carbon targets. The scale of the ambition drives the creativity.’
That sense of optimism was shared by others who felt the recent Levelling Up White Paper had put cities ‘back on the agenda’ and they can be seen as the ‘drivers for growth’.
This confidence has enhanced the global focus for many of those shaping the future of our core cities and has led to clear successes.
One city claimed to be seeing such a boom in life sciences that they ‘couldn’t build enough places to meet demand’. The triple access to university, hospital and start-up sectors is seen as driving this bounce.
No conversation about core cities would be complete without mention of transport infrastructure. A particular concern is the need to improve connections between cities. While glory projects such as HS2 are all well and good, participants felt the need to link up cities beyond this is of vital importance. As one put it, there is a need to shrink the distance between core cities.
In addition, emerging into a post-COVID world has also meant a realisation that there is a need to consider how people want to travel and connect in the future.
As with many other issues facing cities, there was a sense around the table that there hasn’t been cohesive national thinking about what is needed in terms of transport. This has led to a lack of necessary integration and investment in infrastructure.
But despite the challenges those in the room face, there is an undoubted confidence. Achieved devolution and the ambition to grasp more have no doubt boosted this positive buzz.
While funding inevitably is a bone of contention, there was a feeling that cities were more than capable of justifying why they deserved extra cash.
As one participant suggested, achieving growth should be recognised in fiscal decisions. There was, they said, a need for ‘innovative financing mechanisms’ such as seed funding.
However, across the plethora of topics raised – be it economic growth, the reshaping of city centres, the push to net zero, tackling the cost of living crisis, housing, care pressures, skills gaps or transport and infrastructure – there was little mention of central government.
The confidence core cities have mustered from handling the pandemic and tackling head on all the challenges and opportunities they face appears to have given them an unmistakable can-do outlook.
Yes, these city councils are concerned about central government funding. Yes, they are worried about a lack of strategic direction from Whitehall. But, probably more than anything, they just want the Government to stop holding them back.
Round table attendees
Tom Riordan – Chief executive, Leeds City Council; chair, Core Cities
Mike Jackson – Chief executive, Bristol City Council
Jonathan Day – Economic policy manager, Cardiff City Council
Mel Creighton – Deputy chief executive, Liverpool City Council
Joanne Roney – Chief executive, Manchester City Council
Michelle Percy – Director of place, Newcastle City Council
Mel Barrett – Chief executive, Nottingham City Council
Kate Martin – Executive director, Sheffield City Council
Chris Murray – Director, Core Cities UK
Edward Maughan – Director, London Private and Public Sector, BT
Philip Sandford – Professional technology partner, BT
Michael Burton – The MJ (chair)
Deborah Cadman – Chief executive, Birmingham City Council (via zoom)
Geoff Dickson – Strategic policy lead officer, Belfast City Council (via zoom)
Elaine Fox – Senior policy and performance officer, Nottingham City Council (via zoom)
COMMENT: Ed Maughan – director, London Private and Public Sector at BT:
It was a really positive round table discussion and interesting to hear more about the new growth areas for our local authority partners, as well as learn about the key challenges they face.
The past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic have had a huge impact on our communities, including shaping how people live, work and play in the future.
The deployment of new technologies, increased digital transformation of public services, and improved digital skills, have the potential to drive further positive change and help tackle inequalities in our towns and cities.