HS2 just the start as England’s largest cities push for growth

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Leeds and Sheffield will join forces with England’s largest regional cities to create their own energy companies and drive down bills for businesses and consumers as part of a push for civic growth.

The leaders of England’s eight largest cities outside London have published a ‘prospectus for growth’ setting out a raft of ways in which they believe urban areas can drive forward the UK economy over the next 20 years.

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin (fifth left) and Prime Minister David Cameron, with city representatives after a meeting to pledge their backing for the �50 billion HS2 high-speed rail project.

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin (fifth left) and Prime Minister David Cameron, with city representatives after a meeting to pledge their backing for the �50 billion HS2 high-speed rail project.

The ‘Core Cities’ group wants the construction of the new high-speed rail line between London and the North to be built faster, and extended beyond Manchester and Leeds to York, Newcastle, Glasgow and Edinburgh as soon as possible. They presented a petition to the Prime Minister at Downing Street yesterday calling for the rapid delivery of HS2.

They are also calling for the mass devolution of fiscal powers, demanding full control over locally-raised taxes such as stamp duty, business rates and council tax to become financially independent of Westminster by 2033.

The cities – Leeds, Sheffield, Birmingham, Manchester, Nottingham, Newcastle, Liverpool and Bristol – also want control of their own rail networks, allowing them to tailor contracts locally to meet demand and to reinvest profits in better trains and stations.

And they unveiled radical proposals to set up civic energy companies that will seek to harness a city’s combined purchasing power to bulk-buy or generate electricity more cheaply than is currently possible.

“The eight Core Cities’ LEP areas account for almost a quarter of the UK’s total energy demand,” the prospectus states. “Core Cities are the places that can unlock energy solutions for the country.

“Core Cities will work to establish a co-ordinated framework of energy service companies across their eight urban areas that will seek to obtain one or more supply and distribution licences,

“Core Cities want to set tariff prices on energy they produce and reinvest more taxes from energy production.”

Energy prices have been a burning political issue over recent weeks, following Labour leader Ed Miliband’s pledge to freeze gas and electricity bills should his party win the next election.

The intervention from the country’s largest regional cities into the debate is therefore likely to make waves – but merely forms one part of a broad push from Northern civic leaders to take control of their own destinies.

Speaking at yesterday’s Core Cities conference in Westminster, the group’s chairman Sir Richard Leese – leader of Manchester City Council – said it was vital the Government gives cities the powers to push forward with economic development after decades of over-centralisation in Whitehall.

“Our aim is for all the Core Cities to outperform the national economy, and to become financially self-sustaining before the completion of HS2 (in 2033),” he said.

“Through these plans we believe that our great English cities can drive a new economic revolution, putting us at the front of the global race. But achieving it means cities, their civic and business leaders, need the tools to deliver.”

There is an acceptance among the city leaders that it will take significant public pressure to prise further powers and funding away from Whitehall.

Coun Julie Dore, leader of Sheffield City Council, said it was vital people understand the wider benefits they would enjoy if decisions over energy, transport, housing and jobs are taken at a local level.

“You can’t sell devolution on the doorstep,” she said. “What you have to sell is the product that will be delivered through devolution.

“So better housing, more affordable housing, better jobs, cheaper energy, more reliable transport – all those things you can do much better at a local level, because you know that area.”