An open letter to the British government: Working with mid-sized cities will solve your problems

The Hepworth Gallery, Wakefield. Image: Poliphilo/Wikimedia Commons.

Dear Prime Minister,

UK productivity growth is struggling. Social inequalities and divisions are becoming more widely entrenched. And these pressing problems are largely being put to one side because government time is, by necessity, almost exclusively occupied with the UK’s impending exit from the European Union.

National government cannot solve all the UK’s challenges alone. That is why we, as 24 mid-sized cities in the Key Cities Group, have come together to publish our latest report, Key Cities: Cities in Action. We have the drive, energy and ambition to play our part in delivering stronger economic growth and social prosperity for all corners of the UK. Our Cities in Action report sets out the additional powers, freedoms and resources that we need to make this happen.

You committed in the Industrial Strategy to move away from a one-size-fits all approach. Instead, the Industrial Strategy aims to encourage distinctive regional strengths as a means of boosting regional and national growth. In terms of delivering this commitment, working more closely with our mid-sized Key Cities offers the country a quick win.  Our collective annual GVA is £130.5bn, almost equivalent to the annual GVA of Scotland. With support to raise all Key Cities’ productivity levels to the England average, we will contribute an additional £258bn to the UK economy by 2029. This is a significant opportunity that no national government can afford to ignore.


To bring communities who feel neglected and ‘left behind’ back into the fold, you will find no better ally than mid-sized cities. Key Cities are located the length and breadth of England and Wales and home to a combined population of 6.4 million. My Key Cities colleagues and I represent the authentic voice of urban Britain. We stand ready and willing to work with national government to develop policy that helps all people and places benefit from economic growth

For us to carry out this role effectively, we in the Key Cities have three asks of national and devolved governments to underpin our new working relationship:

First, work in partnership with mid-sized cities. The Key Cities Group is a cross-party alliance of mid-sized city leaders. We are used to working across parties, sectors and other arbitrary boundaries to deliver our shared ambitions for our cities. If national government works more closely with us as partners, our cities and country will reap the rewards.

Second, trust mid-sized cities. Our cities’ compact size and scale of mid-sized cities give us as city leaders an intimate knowledge of the needs of our communities and an ability to convene relevant partners quickly to make the most of new opportunities. We therefore call on government to trust the leadership of mid-sized cities by devolving powers and budgets in full rather than just seeking to secure short-term deals.

Third, listen to mid-sized cities. We have long and proud histories of innovation and delivery. Key Cities, located across the country, make ideal testbeds to evaluate the impact of new policies and assess whether they could be rolled out to other parts of the UK. In the coming year, we intend to launch a Cities in Action programme, putting ideas and options forward to government and others to demonstrate what empowered and activist cities can do for our own residents and businesses and the wider economy and country. 

With Brexit looming ever closer on the horizon, all cities have an important part to play in bringing about economic and social prosperity. Mid-sized cities such as Key Cities cannot unleash their full potential without the support of national government. With that support, we will be the cornerstone of a thriving United Kingdom.

            Yours,

                        Peter Box

Councillor Peter Box is the Labour leader of Wakefield City council and chair of the Key Cities Group.

 
 
 
 

Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.

 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.


There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.