Both Budget and industrial strategy disappointed: the government still needs to invest in Britain’s cities

Not good enough, chancellor. Image: Getty.

Britain’s cities hold the key to solving our productivity problem as the UK prepares for Brexit. Representing over a quarter of the UK economy, and containing nearly a third of its population and a quarter of its businesses, the 10 Core Cities have a vital role.

The recent Industrial Strategy and Autumn Budget both contained measures that can help us realise this potential – but the government did not go far enough. Despite hopes that the Budget would mark a break with austerity, it contained little that will help our member cities cope with the financial crisis they face. Most significantly of all, there was nothing in the budget on funding of social care, the issue which is threatening the financial position of councils across the country and their ability to carry on delivering high quality public services.

Despite the government’s promise of a review of social care funding by the end of this year, the review has been postponed. As the government delays, councils struggle to cope with rising demand and vulnerable people suffer from poorly funded services.

Extra funding for the NHS is undoubtedly needed, but providing money for the health service to deal with the winter crisis while not providing extra funding for social care – which could make a real difference to preventing people having to go into hospital – is the wrong choice.

Extra investment in housing was the centrepiece of the Budget, but the announcements failed to deliver on the promises of radicalism from Downing Street and Treasury. We do need to see 300,000 homes built a year, but we need to reach those levels quicker than the mid-2020s.

The lifting of the HRA borrowing cap is good news – but rather than trusting cities to get on with building the social homes they need, freedom is limited, tying councils up to negotiate with Whitehall rather than getting on and building. We believe that all core cities should be given the right to borrow against their housing income to build the new homes we desperately need.

A week after the budget came the Industrial Strategy. There was much in it that we welcomed, including a focus on place and infrastructure. But as we have told ministers in recent face-to-face meetings, a significant factor in our cities’ productivity is not due to poor connections, but is linked to deprivation.


The only way to get more people involved in our city economies is to invest in better, reformed public services – for example schools and housing – that will pay dividends later on and can help cities fire on all cylinders, delivering up to an extra £90bn for our economy every year.

International evidence shows that cities that have the most control over taxes raised in their area and the delivery of policy in a way that meets their local needs tend to be the most productive. The UK is still one of the most highly centralised countries in the world – and as a consequence the productivity of our cities is much worse than most international competitors.

There have been some positive moves on devolution from government, but there is much more to be done to deliver the decentralisation of power in the UK, giving cities the freedom to align services and investment at the level of place.

The Budget in particular was disappointing for cities. Their financial position isn’t significantly improved, the promised radicalism on house building failed to appear and we are still a long way from having the tools we need to deliver significant mprovements in productivity.

However, we are working hard to engage with government and recent meetings with both the secretaries of state for transport and communities have seen government signal its willingness to listen to our ideas and work in partnership with Core Cities UK to deliver a better, fairer and more productive Britain.

Cllr Jon Collins is Core Cities UK cabinet member for finance and leader of Nottingham City Council.

 
 
 
 

How spurious imperial science affected the layout of African cities

Freetown, Sierra Leone. Image: David Hond/Freetown From The Air/Wikimedia Commons.

As the European powers spread across the world, systematically colonising it as they went, one of the deadliest enemies they faced was disease. In 1850s India, one in twenty British soldiers were dying from such diseases – on a par with British Empire casualty rates during World War II.

When Europeans started dropping dead the minute they got off the boat, the scientists of the day rushed to provide their own, at times fairly dodgy, solutions. This era coincided with a key period of city planning in the African colonies – meaning that there is still visible evidence of this shoddy science in the cityscape of many modern African cities.
For a long time altitude was considered a protection against disease, on the grounds that it was far from the lowland heat associated with putrefaction. British officials in India retreated to the ‘hill stations’ during the warm season; this practice continued in the African colonies established by all sorts of European powers in the late 19th century.

So it was that one bunch of imperialists established the capital of German Kamerun at Buea, high on the side of Mount Cameroon. The city still has a population of 90,000 today. Evidence of this height fetish can still be found in the ‘Plateau’ districts of Brazzaville, Dakar and Abidjan as well as the ‘Ridge’ district of Accra.


Malaria, particularly, was an ever present fear in the colonies, and it did much to shape the colonial cities. It’s a sign of the extent to which 19th century medical science misunderstood how the disease was spread that its name comes from the French for ‘bad air’. By the late 19th century, knowledge had managed to progress far enough to identify mosquitoes as the culprits – but views still wildly diverged about the appropriate response.

One solution popular in many empires was segregation. The Europeans had incorrectly identified Africans as the main carriers of the disease; African children under five were believed to be the main source of malaria so they were to be kept far away from the colonists at all times.

And so, many powers decided that the European settlers should be housed in their own separate areas. (Of course, this wrong headed but at least rational response wasn’t the whole explanation: often, sanitary concerns were used to veil simple racial chauvinism.)

The affluent Hill Station – a name reminiscent of the Indian colonies – in Freetown, Sierra Leone was built as a segregated suburb so Europeans could keep well clear of the local children. Today, it’s where the home of the president can be found. Yet despite all this expensive shuffling of Freetown’s urban landscape, inhabitants of Hill Station came down with malaria at about the same as those who lived elsewhere.

 

The Uganda Golf Course, Kampala. Image: Google Maps.

In Kampala, Uganga, a golf course now occupies the land designated by the British powers to protect the European neighbourhood from the African. A similar appropriation can be seen in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of The Congo, where a zoo, botanical garden and another golf course can be found the land earmarked for protecting colonial officials and their families.

All this urban juggling was the privilege of immensely powerful colonial officials, backed up by the military might of the imperial powers. The indigenous peoples could do little but watch as their cities were bulldozed and rebuilt based on the whims of the day. Yet the scars are still visible in the fabric of many modern African cities today.