Theresa May’s Opportunity to support cities

On Monday I went to Birmingham to speak at two fringe events at the Conservative Party Conference. It was at the International Convention Centre in the centre of Birmingham, hosting 11,000 people over three days. The ICC is an impressive space and a clear benefit to the city.

I was representing the Core Cities network, making the case against austerity, arguing for the financial resources and devolved powers cities require to meet the needs of their populations and deliver an economic boost for the country. I made the case that national governments are not delivering, but cities and international networks of cities could be part of the solution. But to do this we need to get beyond the “bid and beg” relationship we have with national government to one where we are respected as equal partners.

I raised several issues, with austerity as the priority. For years there has been nowhere else to cut without people being hurt. I warned that no-one has done the work of assessing the potential long term cost of austerity. So many of the interventions public services make (for example public health or educational support) are preventative. Losing these early interventions increases the likelihood of more severe, and expensive, crisis being realised in the future. And I pointed out that while many people rightly campaign for the visible services such as parks and libraries, no-one campaigns for the backroom staff. Local Authority planners and lawyers are often under resourced, and yet these are the very skills we need to unlock cities, to build homes and drive inclusive economic growth.

The fringes wanted to know what practices Local Governments are undertaking to deliver for their populations. I talked about how in Bristol we are working through the City Office to get better alignment toward shared city goals. If we can get every major organisation working with the city to achieve an agreed goal – rather than each pursuing their own story – there would be so much we could achieve. Well organised cities deliver more than the sum of their parts.

Having said that, it’s critical Local Government get the funding we need to be able to put in the time and resources needed to perform that city convening and leadership role.

So many people I spoke to while I was there described Brexit and its handling as a crisis. My point, as ever, was that Brexit was and remains the wrong answer to the right problem. The problem was/is people being left behind by the economy, poor access to public services and a perception that politics is failing. However my concern is that the leaders of Brexit and their proposition will not meet these challenges. I have heard so little in the negotiations about transport, homes, mental health, school places – the very things that matter at the point governance meets the concerns of real people.

Without clear and objective information and evidence from government or other sources is it difficult to plan in detail for this. In recent weeks we have seen more advisories from government and the advice to plan for ‘No Deal’. Tomorrow the Bristol Brexit Response Group, representing many city institutions, is meeting to continue sharing information and getting us Brexit ready.

Today in her speech, I wanted the PM to give further clarity around Brexit for us, and also start to offer hope to people in Britain to show that people can empower our cities and genuinely ‘take back control’ with sovereignty and resources coming to cities and towns which can best deliver for their citizens.

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