Reflections

Cllr Paul Watson, Leader of Sunderland City Council

In many ways, 2013, when we set up the Key Cities Group, seems like an awfully long time ago – back then the energy price freeze was the big political topic of the day. Today, it’s how we unwind our 44-year membership of the bloc that provides our biggest trading partners. Cities haven’t sat still over the last three of four years to be sure – in fact, today I think the principle that local authorities should be more responsible and accountable for local services is more strongly entrenched than ever in our political life. Cities all over the country have secured more investment from the government and more powers to control how that money is spent.

However, as I hand over leadership of the Group to the very capable hands of Councillor Peter Box of Wakefield, the challenges we face have only intensified. Many councils are near their breaking points as years of cuts have piled up – and the government has stubbornly resisted granting us more than just the power to ration cuts. But I am optimistic that the political tide has turned against austerity, and that if local government speaks as one, we can win the extra funding we need.

I feel similarly about Brexit – the cities of our Group were the ones that drove the vote to leave. We likewise stand to gain or lose the most from Brexit – and we must seize this moment to get the Government to adopt a new collaborative approach.  We need an adequate transition period to secure a meaningful trade deal, and we need guarantees that the government will fully replace the European funding we get. We need the ability to ensure that the benefit of this is felt by our communities.

Our cities, naturally want security –but we don’t want to fall back into our old ways of thinking. If Brexit provides us one thing, it must be the opportunity to think afresh about our approach to social and economic policy. Regardless of whether or not we go with a soft or hard Brexit, we still need to address the divisions in our country, and the lack of opportunity that so many people keenly felt. The election result does nothing to change the reality of that challenge.

In truth, the basic fundamentals of our position are the same. Britain is not productive enough as a country, and that means we don’t generate enough good jobs with decent wages, enough wealth to invest in our future, and enough money to invest in our public services. That problem was around before Brexit and austerity, and it will be around afterward. It remains our defining challenge as a country, and I hope that cities like ours will continue to be a powerful voice in finding the answers.

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