It has been a pleasure and a privilege to chair Core Cities UK over the last two years, a time when urban leadership in the UK has continued to deliver against a backdrop of chaotic central government and geopolitical turbulence.
I am proud to be handing over to Councillor Bev Craig, Leader of Manchester City Council. Bev will, I know, do a fantastic job going forward, particularly in a crucial year for the UK's urban agenda as we head into a General Election. She will continue the work we have been doing to get the country to understand the importance of its cities to our regional, national and international performance.
Whoever wins the General election, Core Cities will unite with partners to call for a national plan for cities that will help unlock their potential. This will involve a combination of giving cities the policy support, financial investment and freedom to act to get the job done.
The lack of a national strategy for cities is a national failing and I am sometimes staggered by the apparent inability of Whitehall and Westminster to see and understand cities’ role as engines of growth, home to most of our population, anchors of our global connectivity. We saw some of the worst of this attitude during the pandemic, when requests by leaders and mayors for a cooperative approach on a massive challenge were too often ignored. In contrast to this failure, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres described cities as where the climate battle will largely be won or lost and called mayors “the world’s first responders to the climate emergency."
Together our cities and their city regions are home to 20 million people and generate a quarter of our economy. If we gave them the same functions and freedoms as most European cities and brought them up to the same levels of productivity, we could generate £100 billion extra each year for the UK economy.
Our work with the RSA on the UK Urban Futures Commission demonstrated this once again and made some clear, practical, recommendations for the next Government. For example, empowering city leaders, giving them statutory responsibility for raising prosperity and getting serious about keeping a greater proportion of taxes at a local level. Successful UK cities, and a national government able to work successfully with our cities, will be critical to turning political commitments into practical delivery.
The last two years have reinforced my belief that cities are not only the present, but the future; not just for the UK, but for the world. We need national and international approaches to leadership to mature into their next iteration in which the leaders of cities and networks of cities are more equal partners in shaping national and international policy.
It’s a partnership in which we recognise that sometimes, it is cities who are best placed to lead and national government’s job is to be the best follower it can be.
Core Cities UK's growing international presence has demonstrated that. Despite the ramifications of Brexit, we have strengthened links with our European peers and continued to work with city leaders from across the G7 nations through our U7 initiative.
Geopolitical turbulence has meant that we increasingly saw global issues play out in our cities of sanctuary, for example the arrival of thousands of refugees from Afghanistan, Hong Kong and Ukraine. Migration is a classic example of an issue that is seen through a national lens, but where the effects are most felt in cities, and I will continue to work through the Mayors Migration Council to advocate for the required investment.
Dwindling resources was also a constant theme during my time as chair. City councils have done so well to survive almost a decade and a half of austerity, often thinking differently to protect and deliver services in a truly innovative way, but rising costs and demand are now pushing our cities to the edge. Our group has already seen Nottingham and Birmingham issue section 114 notices and I am certain there will be more across the wider local government. We must invest in the local state properly if we are to realise the benefits it can bring in terms of targeted, joined up and preventative services that save future costs, build resilience and unlock talent.
Finally, I am proud of 3Ci, our climate finance initiative, working with Key Cities, London Councils and the LGA among others, that really got going during my time as chair of Core Cites UK. It has done much to convince decision makers of the power of local urban leadership in meeting the biggest challenge of our time. It has been great to see it held up as an international example. I hope to see it succeed in the UK and inspire other city networks around the world.
Cities really are the future. The world is urbanising at an incredible rate. More than half of the world already lives in cities. By the middle of this century, almost 70 percent of people will. National governments are waking up to their power and potential and I am glad to have played a part in this while leading Core Cities UK.