Peter Box: Cities must come together to bring opportunity for all

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AS Chair of the 22 Key Cities, ten of which are in the North, I welcome the launch of the Northern Powerhouse All Party Parliamentary Group yesterday. Why wouldn’t I?

It will be another voice lobbying for Northern cities, towns and neighbourhoods, and we certainly need as many voices as we can get. It is vital that we tackle the huge imbalance in growth and prosperity between North and South and that we do so quickly.

We can’t afford to spend more time talking and not seeing results. The creation of the Northern Powerhouse was a welcome step and I hope this new group in Parliament will see this advance even further.

Yet recent economic growth has not just benefited the South more than the North. It has seen the creation of a London-centric metropolitan elite that leaves many smaller cities and towns overlooked and alienated.

We need to avoid making the same mistake in the North. Creating a Northern metropolitan elite will not create the growth for all, which our residents badly need and deserve. Cities and towns of all sizes must be part of a shared and inclusive push-back on uneven distribution of wealth.

This is not a one-sided ask; the incredible diversity of places in the North is one of its strengths. Harnessing the contribution of all of the many different economies and skill-sets, within all of the towns and cities in our region, will ensure the growth of the North, not just the major cities, is enhanced and sustained.

In the North, our Key Cities include Blackpool, Bradford, Doncaster, Hull, Kirklees, Preston, Salford, Sunderland, Tees Valley and, of course, my own Wakefield. We represent 3.4m people in Northern cities that range across coastal, landlocked, older industrial, modern industry, traditional communities and new populations; we fought on both sides in the Civil War (and let’s not mention the Wars of the Roses).

Yet, as Key Cities, we weave these differences together to a common strength and speak collectively for our common goals. Together we have seen growth in productivity exceed that of our larger cities. We contribute over £63bn to the economy of the North, with three of the top five fastest-growing city economies in the Northern Powerhouse.

In terms of manufacturing, we contribute £9.2bn to the economy with four of the five fastest-growing manufacturing economies in the North. We are also a role model for cross-party working, bringing leaders and cities together across political divides to work together on our common issues. In other words, we bring plenty to the table.

Key Cities also know what happens when folk feel excluded. They see a sophisticated elite benefiting from a prosperity that is never within their grasp. This sense of alienation and neglect came through loud and clear in the EU referendum – most Key Cities voted ‘leave’, whereas most of the biggest cities voted ‘remain’.

The places which we represent, along with a vast majority of people in the North, still do not see a future in the status quo and our job as politicians across all parties is give all our places a future.

We need to understand the real concerns and needs of our population and think carefully about how to respond. This means that maximising the North’s input into the Industrial Strategy is critical. If we are to succeed and improve productivity, up our game on research and development 
and increase exports – improving wages, opportunities and lives – then areas of all sizes need to be involved. The challenge is to make sure change works for everyone and to not create our own version of the London-centric South.

Britain cannot rely on a handful of big cities to provide a modern and balanced economy; London is teaching us that. The North is fortunate in the diversity of its towns and cities; it’s one of our greatest strengths.

One aim of the Northern Powerhouse was to spread 
hope and opportunity to communities left out in the cold for too long. The name itself recognises that the North is a powerful collective as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.

We have international-sized cities, agile and effective key cities, historic market towns and strong rural areas. We are in this together and must remain so.

What do Key Cities bring apart from our track record of growth? We have land and ambition for expansion, we have skills across diverse sectors and we are quick to respond and quick to deliver. So this is why I welcome the Parliamentary group and its ability to bring together political parties, diverse places and different voices.

I look forward to a strong relationship between this group, the Northern Powerhouse and Key Cities. Our voice is strong, rooted in our communities, and ready and willing to shape the North of the future.

Peter Box heads the Key Cities group. He is also leader of Wakefield Council.