Vote spells hope for city-regions, by Alexandra Jones

While the recent Scottish independence referendum undoubtedly threw national devolution back into the limelight, it also reinvigorated a range of other voices calling for Westminster to give up some of the powers that have made the UK government one of the most centralised in the developed world.

Although some have been advocating the creation of an English Parliament – initiating a politically and constitutionally complex debate that is likely to last for many months – it has been encouraging to also see all three of the main parties talking about transferring some strategic economic powers and funding to UK cities and city-regions.

This is smart policy. Cities are the engine rooms of the UK’s economy. Even in terms of numbers, it is a sound move – the 64 largest cities account for 54 per cent of the population, 61 per cent of economic output and 75 per cent of high skilled jobs. But focusing on cities is also smart politics.

A sense of alienation and disenfranchisement from Westminster and the South East was one of the most significant themes of the debates in the Scottish independence referendum. It will surprise few to learn that a Centre for Cities/Centre for London survey earlier this year showed that only nine per cent of Glaswegians felt that the UK government responds to its needs.

However, these sentiments are not limited to those living north of the border. In Milton Keynes – one of London’s closest and most prosperous neighbours – 52 per cent of people think that the location of Parliament and Whitehall means that decisions are too focused on London. Move north to Hull and this figure jumps to 71 per cent, while it is 74 per cent in Newcastle. Politicians need to restore the connection between people and government decisions, and to link it to the place in which they feel they live – not just to the local council.

With its significantly elevated level of devolved powers, London has been best able to marry policy and place over recent years, with impressive outcomes. The London Plan – which has given the capital an overarching growth strategy and enabled other bodies involved in economic development, such as Transport for London, to align their modelling and approaches – has led to much greater co-ordination than in most other cities, and played an important role in driving forward London’s successes.

Given that planning is so important to enabling economic growth and the public realm, at both local and national levels, it is therefore vital that strategic responsibility for its delivery is moved to the city-regional level, to support an over-arching approach to land use planning and housing delivery on the ground.

The hope then is that the outcome of the referendum will finally provide the long-overdue impetus for Westminster to enable other cities across the UK, outside London, the chance to better realise their own potential.


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