Andrew Carter: North must rise to challenge of the Age of Cities

When we look back on 2014 in years to come, may it mark the moment when the United Kingdom finally took a brave leap forward in committing to emancipate and grow its cities.

After so many years of uneven economic progress, and buck-passing from successive governments, the great cities of northern England have their best chance yet to claim a significant place in the 21st century global economy.

Political interest in devolution and the empowerment of cities has surged over the past six months – coming to a crescendo in the wake of the Scottish Independence referendum.

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In many ways, the parties are responding to the tide of discontent among local leaders and their constituents over their lack of control over the big decisions that affect their daily lives.

But they are also recognising that Britain can no longer rely on London’s success alone to deliver national prosperity.

As we inch closer to the 2015 Election, some genuine proposals are being put forward from each of the parties – from the Coalition’s commitment to a “Metro Mayor” for Greater Manchester and wide-ranging deals likely to follow for Leeds and Sheffield, to Labour’s pledge to afford greater local control over key transport services.

These recent announcements further the encouraging focus on cities policy we saw throughout party conference season.

While much of the detail is to be worked out, and it’s unclear as to what will, in reality, be delivered, we are at least finally starting to see the critical mass of cross-party ambition needed to drive long-term economic success in UK cities.

The responsibility for building a better and stronger North doesn’t just rest on the shoulders of national politicians. So too must city leaders show, by working together and creating a climate for innovation, that cities can deliver greater prosperity – for themselves and the nation – if they are able to tailor policies to their needs. It has never been clearer that we are living in the Age of Cities. More than any other time in history, cities are recognised as the most productive and dynamic places to live, work and invest. Cities are creating the ideas, technological progress and business growth that will shape the world’s future.

What this means is that the UK’s cities need to be able to stand their ground in competition, not just with each other, but with great and growing cities throughout the world.

The disparities in economic performance between London and all others can make this feel like a far-flung dream.

And yet, we must remember that our northern cities have been world leaders before – in shipping, cotton, steel, and wool, just to name a few.

There is no reason why, with the right powers, funding, flexibilities and investment, these cities could not once again be part of a global flow of ideas, technologies and talent. But big challenges remain. As it stands, the UK simply doesn’t have a cadre of “second cities” that can match the scale and output of those in many other advanced nations.

Given this, attention is rightly focusing on improving transport links to help our most successful northern cities pool their labour forces and business environments to build a cohesive economic “powerhouse”.

But while connectivity is important, it must also be matched by sound city-level policy-making.

After years of being constrained under a one-size-fits-all approach from Westminster, our northern cities need the flexibility and control over their finances to be able to invest where it is most needed.

They need to be able to deliver effective and frequent transport services, alongside first-rate skills and education systems, and housing to meet both current and future demand.

These building blocks of growth are essential for complementing the North’s world-class academic and cultural institutions, ensuring its cities are attractive places to live and do business.

Today, 300 local leaders, captains of industry, academics, and policy-makers will meet in Leeds to thrash out ideas to take the recent political interest forward at the Northern Futures Summit.

Organised by the Centre for Cities, in partnership with the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office, this is an important opportunity to redefine the relationship between local and national government, and set out a clear plan to regenerate and invigorate the North.

Northern cities have stood at the centre of the world before. There is no reason why they should not become a serious force again – they just need imaginative local leadership, and a commitment from national politicians to free them to grow and prosper. It’s time to write the next chapter for the North of England – a story in which its thriving cities are once again the envy of the world.

Andrew Carter is acting chief exectutive of the independent research and policy institute Centre for Cities.