Here are five predictions for what will shape Britain’s cities this year

For a start, we'll probably hear more from this guy: London's mayor Sadiq Khan. Image: Getty.

Last year was one which confounded predictions and wrong-footed experts in everything from politics to football. But I buy Nesta’s argument that accuracy isn’t everything when it comes to predictions. Thinking about possible futures informs our plans, even if they have to change in light of unexpected events.

With that in mind, here are my predictions about five big issues that will shape the rest of this year for city regions.

First, the rules of global politics and economics will change, with a move towards increased protectionism from some and growing concerns about immigration everywhere. 

Last year’s backlash against globalisation is set to continue with the arrival of President Trump, committed to reintroducing tariffs, revitalising America’s manufacturing industries and working on a bilateral rather than multilateral basis. The French and German elections, whatever their outcome, are set to have wide-ranging implications for the EU and its constitution and, of course, for Brexit negotiations.

All of these changes will affect trade not just internationally but also at the city region level, with different implications depending on the industrial and workforce make-up of each area.

The combination of Brexit with such significant changes in political leaders in the US and EU means that international politics will dominate the national policy agenda this year. It will colour almost every other policy debate and absorb a substantial proportion of ministerial and civil service time, to the exclusion of many other issues – potentially including devolution, which requires considerable policy untangling in such a centralised country.

However, amid international economic upheaval, it is even more important that the UK government does all it can to support city regions up and down the country to thrive. That means, paradoxically, there’s a chance (it may be a slim one but here’s hoping) that the government ends up engaging in more wholesale devolution to city regions to free itself to deal with these international challenges.

Second, as government seeks to support domestic growth, the tension between economics and politics will continue to grow, exemplified by the government’s forthcoming industrial strategy’s recommendations. 

Government needs to support economic growth and boost productivity as quickly as possible in order to raise wages and improve living standards. Economic evidence suggests the way to deliver results quickly is to concentrate investment and resources on the areas that are already successful. This will deliver the fastest, and generate higher levels, of growth and taxes for the UK as a whole.

Yet we already know that the way the UK has supported economic growth in the past has not delivered enough benefit for enough people. This is further bolstered by the fact that many who voted for Brexit and Trump did so in part because they felt their living standards had not improved in recent years. Politicians need to deliver an economy that “works for all” - one that has high productivity and helps the people and places that have been left behind.

But there is no easy way to do this; the risk is that, as economic and political pressure grows, the government ends up investing in policies that history shows neither help growth nor help the more disadvantaged areas – for example, building innovation campuses in deprived communities that lack the skills, business demand or infrastructure to support them to grow rapidly, or for locals to benefit from any jobs created.

The industrial strategy will need to grapple with this. Greg Clark’s commitment to a place-based approach is encouraging but expectations are high, probably too high. To be regarded as successful, the industrial strategy will need to set the tone and pave the way for the UK’s sustainable future growth, make the most of limited funds to invest in innovation and support economic growth, and respond to demands that something happens now for those who are left-behind.

The industrial strategy will shape domestic economic policy for the foreseeable future, and city regions will need to be at the heart of its development and implementation.


My third prediction is that distrust in politicians and the "elite" will continue to grow, with metro mayors and local politics offering new opportunities for national parties to connect with the electorate.

National politicians face stupendous difficulties in delivering on the high expectations of a divided electorate. Take Brexit – the Conservatives need to agree a deal that delivers on all the campaign promises, while holding together its small majority. Labour needs to work out what deal will work best for the 70 per cent of its constituencies who voted Leave and who UKIP is looking to poach, while at the same time as not antagonising its Remain supporters, who the Liberal Democrats are courting. This task will be made more difficult by the lack of trust among the electorate of national politicians and the elite in particular.

Local politics, and the incoming metro mayors in particular, offers new opportunities for national parties to reconnect with a sceptical, divided electorate. The election of city region mayors in May creates a new opportunity for all of the national parties to reinvent themselves and reconnect with the electorate – one recognised by big names like Andy Burnham and Andy Street.

For Labour, there’s an opportunity for mayors to show that Labour can deliver demonstrable change grounded in local priorities rather than political ideology. For the Conservatives, there’s a chance to demonstrate their relevance and value to urban voters, such as in the West Midlands, that have otherwise largely ignored them.

This is not to suggest it will be easy for mayors to build trust. It is a new role and will take time to make a difference. One of the big challenges the new metro mayors will face – as our work on lessons for metro mayors highlights – is setting the tone for the future of the role, as well as for their term. Communicating their aspirations early on, and ensuring they make a start on delivery, will be vital, even if substantial change takes time.

Fourth, 2017 will be a year in which UK city regions and metro mayors rethink their national and international roles.

Across the world, there is a global shift towards mayors being regarded as the pragmatic responses to ideological impasses at national level – the people who not only ensure that services run and potholes are filled, but also those who can take tangible action to tackle big issues like climate change. Global networks such as Benjamin Barber’s Global Parliament of Mayors and C40’s Climate Change Leadership Group will become increasingly important to city leaders keen to make the most of international links and learn from each other about tackling global problems.

Cities will also be looking to pioneer new ways of doing things, with big data and "smart cities" likely to become of increasing interest as cities consider how best to support economic growth and respond better to the needs of their residents and visitors.

Finally, throughout 2017 the nature of work will continue to change, which will impact people and places in different ways. 

Since the recession, the UK has seen strong jobs growth, tepid GDP growth and zero productivity growth. Policy needs to sustain the first and tackle the second and third issues. As the UK continues to specialise in knowledge intensive jobs and industries, skills are becoming more important to individuals’ opportunities and are likely to become a growing policy priority as the government seeks to make it a country that works for everyone.

At the same time, technological advances continue to alter the nature of work, creating the opportunities and challenges of automation, remote working and the gig economy. Job security and in-work poverty will continue to be big challenges facing national and local government. Fixing the skills deficit in the UK will not be easy or quick.

We already know that there are big policy changes on their way this year that will affect the UK labour market in different ways across the country. The National Living Wage will have the biggest impact on low paid cities such as Sheffield, where 28 per cent of people will get a pay rise in April. Questions remain about the long-term impact this will have on future growth – firms replacing people with robots, firms cutting or adding jobs, firms increasing their productivity – particularly in low waged cities.

If 2016 was the year of big decisions about Brexit and Trump, 2017 will be the year these are acted upon. While we know that the fundamentals of what makes city economies thrive have not changed – skills, infrastructure, innovation – how these fundamentals will be affected over the coming year is less clear. 

City regions will be vital to the UK making the most of its new role in the world – we need to do all we can in the months ahead to ensure they are well positioned to do so.

Alexandra Jones is chief executive of the Centre for Cities. 

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To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”