If there was one phrase that summed up the recent roundtable event in Manchester, which was organised by The MJ and PwC it was ‘lean in’.
Quite apart from the demands of the public address system, it defined a growing sense that with central government pre-occupied with Brexit and a host of unanswered questions about the future local government landscape, now is the time for council leaders to ‘lean in’ and help set and shape the agenda for themselves.
Cometh the hour, cometh the plan and local government is most definitely ready for action.
The round table event brought together various stakeholders, academics and local authority leaders to discuss the recent green paper by the Core Cities group, Invest Reform Trust, which sets out an ambitious agenda around inclusive growth and devolution.
It also calls on the Government to align public services and trust local people who know their places best to get on with the job, seeing not just city leadership but also communities as equal partners
‘We need to be a lot more assertive, even aggressive at times, in terms of getting our message across,’ said Core Cities chair and Leeds City Council leader, Judith Blake at the event.
The report itself was warmly welcomed by those at the event.
‘This report is a really welcome move away from a permissive approach to devolution, where places were thinking “what do I need to ask for permission for next?” to a more assertive one, saying “these are the tools we need, and these are the things that we are going to get on and do, regardless of whether or not the government has the will to directly support the agenda”,’ said one participant.
Another person described the report as ‘a vision for how the cities and place-based leadership can respond to the challenges of the new economy’, which will show how cities can help to cut ‘through the stasis of where we find ourselves now in national politics and really make a bold statement’.
While another participant commented: ‘This feels like the first really strong statement that we are on the front foot. We are not only showing the Government what we are doing already, but we are going to show them how we are shaping the future.’
And another said the green paper ‘shows how far the Core Cities group has come’ and the bold ambition it now has in the policy arena.
One participant praised the practical examples in the report about how inclusive growth can be taken forward in UK cities and the strong emphasis on early intervention, prevention and joining up services more broadly around people and communities.
Two of the major themes in the report are regeneration and infrastructure.
One participant asked if ‘an overt focus on urban regeneration is necessarily an agenda, which will serve the Northern cities well?’
‘It’s been tried in London and you could say it hasn’t really worked. The compact city approach has led to an acute housing shortage and I’m not necessarily sure you want to go down the route. Young people are priced out of the South East of England and the northern cities have a great opportunity to do something different and attract those young people,’ he added.
One senior local government figure said in some outlying towns ‘an emphasis on economic development is the wrong area to start on’.
‘An emphasis on skills, education and housing is what is going to lead the revival of those places,’ he added. ‘The new regeneration model is more complex than what we have done previously.’
Another local government figure said people do not want houses to be built on the green belt.
‘We are having to make difficult trade offs’ he added. ‘If the Government has any chance of hitting its house building targets then it will be through the cities. There has to a real scale of development in city centres and income generation areas adjoining or near the city centre.
‘It’s not just about regeneration,’ he said. ‘Demographic patterns are changing. Millennials have different tastes in terms of where they want to live, whether they want to buy a car and how they get about.’
Another participant said she saw that regeneration is about communities and people. ‘In a post-Brexit world, there is more emphasis on bringing more people into the labour market and to me, that really is what regeneration is about,’ she said.
‘It’s about ensuring communities are a good place to live in and are economically thriving. I think this green paper teases that out more than we have done in the past.’
While another commented ‘looking at cities through the lens of place gets better results’.
‘Place for us is understanding the interaction between different markets, investment streams and policies and trying to align those towards common ends.
‘We know from experience it gets better results and it’s what people want. They would like to see their places made and managed, rather than seeing houses here, jobs there and schools somewhere else.’
One participant raised the issue of digital infrastructure and the role open and shared data can play in helping a city grow. ‘The ability to move data between various parties still seems to elude us in many of the UK’s cities,’ he said. ‘There are still too many divisions between who is managing the planning for digital infrastructure and who is managing the demand.’
Another participant admitted there is a ‘woeful lack of data about what is going on in the economy’ and said there should be more about the role of universities in the Core Cities green paper.
‘The civic role of universities is becoming really important,’ he added. ‘They are such powerful players in regeneration, but also in the creative sector, they have a role in valuing things like innovation, measuring metrics and social and cultural benefits.’
‘I think the role of universities is a core to successful cities around the world,’ said another participant. ‘You just have to look at the whole of Cambridge to see if you get that right, there’s a real opportunity.’
While another person talked about the role transport can play in encouraging economic growth. ‘Transport’s role is not just linking places,’ he said. ‘It’s about defining the nature of places.’
He cited the example of the Workwise scheme, which places transport advisers into Job Centre Pluses to explain how people understand how to use public transport in order to get to interviews and new places of work.
Another person welcomed the green paper’s commitments around locally-commissioned learning and skills programmes. ‘But I wonder if we could look at the wider benefits of learning, which are not just felt by employers, in terms of health and wellbeing. We do agree the adult learning and skills system is experiencing a market failure, partly because it does not meet the needs of local businesess.
‘But it’s also that the system is not very inclusive of local residents. If you think of millions of the adults who would benefit from improving literacy and numerical skills, we need to consider the needs of those people in order to unlock the benefits, not just for the local economy but for active communities as well.’
Another person mentioned that reconfiguring local services is not just about devolution. ‘We’re talking about trust and a new relationship with our communities and capturing all of the added-advantage of a whole place.’
As the debate concluded, one local government figure remarked that the roundtable had been an ‘incredibly useful exercise’, adding: ‘This is also about building consensus around some of these ideas and strengthening them. It’s not just about devolution and reform. It is also about investment and seeking financial autonomy. In order to do that, we need to shift our mindset from one which is about spending is cost to investment for growth and we have to make that based on evidence to get us there.’
But another warned the UK is still a ‘hopelessly-centralised country, politically and economically’. ‘The only way you will get substantial change is to do it in another way,’ he said. ‘We have to prove our case and we have to prove it collectively.
‘As a passionate advocate of devolution, I think everyone knows the battle is far from over. It is never more important than our cities come together with this collective voice. We still have an anti-devolution government in place at the moment and we have to keep fighting our place.’
‘I passionately believe that inclusive growth will come from more devolution to our core cities,’ he added.
The green paper itself will go out to consultation this month and a final document will be presented to ministers in the autumn.
Judging by the roundtable event, there will be no shortage of views as local government stands ready to drive the inclusive economy agenda and create cities fit for the future.