Key Cities on Track for Status and Respect

Just over six months after LGC first uncovered the green shoots of this new and previously disgruntled special interest group of medium-sized cities, its reason for existence has been established, membership and leadership agreed and priorities laid down.

Its manifesto spells out four carefully chosen priorities, relating to barriers commonly faced by this diverse set of 23 urban areas as they pursue economic growth.

In order to expand, key cities claim they must explore new means of making themselves fit for the future, free themselves from Whitehall control, address weaknesses in their labour markets, and find new ways of raising income.

Such ambitions were welcomed by Westminster political leaders at the London launch event. Shadow communities secretary Hilary Benn, who that same day had announced a Labour party policy symposium on devolution, told LGC the group should be applauded. “We do need to be moving power and decision making away from Whitehall and London,” he said.

Local government minister Stephen Williams indicated he would keep a close eye on how these self-proclaimed key cities translated manifesto words into action. “Having got together, it’s now about ‘doing’ as that’s the criteria on how they will be judged,” he said.

According to group chair and Sunderland City Council leader Paul Watson (Lab), the key cities are already taking action as significant players in the English economy. They are now  “impossible to ignore”, he says, quoting last June’s Centre for Cities report on 26 English cities with populations ranging from a quarter to half a million.

As reported by LGC, that study pointed to “good reasons to question the conventional view that larger cities and city regions are the only drivers of national economic growth, to the exclusion of other places”.

Such an argument was music to the ears of the nascent key cities group. Its founding members felt that their voices were “drowned out” by the government’s apparent love of the 15-year-old core cities group of England’s eight largest cities. “There is a bit of unhappiness about what the core cities are about at the moment,” one council leader told LGC last June.

But now the key cities group is established, its relationship with the core cities group appears to have moved away from its earlier rivalry. The new group has pledged to work alongside the older group and with other special interest bodies, such as London Councils, the Special Interest Group of Municipal Authorities and the LGA’s cities board.

But Cllr Watson insists that the key cities group is necessary. “We are an important part of the UK economy with a gross value added of £124bn that has largely been ignored to date,” he says. “And we have some of the fastest growing cities in the country.”

The four key cities making the case for the group, demonstrate the sheer diversity of this group’s challenges and needs.

Preston City Council, a planned stopping point for HS2, still suffers from a half-built new town infrastructure that acts as a “severe constraint” on its economic and housing growth plans. Its high streets are in decline as residents’ shopping habits change.

A growing divide has opened between the skillsets of its residents and those required by local businesses in the aerospace, nuclear and fracking industries.

While down in Southend-on-Sea, growth is curbed by lack of available land for development and regeneration.

Such restrictions are the result of the banking of large plots of land by private sector owners and the designation of other areas as greenbelt.

This has led to “large tracts that cannot be quickly and easily developed”, a spokeswoman for the authority said. To help ease these restrictions, this Thames Estuary town would like greater support for compulsory purchase powers and for greenbelt land to be redesignated.

Such pleas for extra powers are central to the key cities group’s ambitions. But as Peter Box (Lab), leader of Wakefield MDC, indicates, it may be some time before these requests become a reality. “It’s early days,” he told LGC. “There will be more to come and we have plans in place. This is just the beginning.”