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.

 
 
 
 

Could twin towns bring Britain back together?

An unlikely pair. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Twin towns: an irrelevant novelty to most of us, a peculiar name on a village’s welcome sign. But could linking one British town to another – a domestic reinterpretation of this long-standing European practice – help bring Britain back together in a time of national crisis?

Born in the aftermath of World War II, town twinning aimed to foster cooperation and solidarity across Europe. Communities entered formal alliances, nurturing friendships and shared histories. Coventry forged links with Dresden and Volgograd, then Stalingrad, marking the devastation faced by their citizens during the war.

The democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal during the 1970s led to a new wave of twin towns across Europe, as did the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later. Since its inception, the focus of town twinning has been on uniting people through relationships. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that many of these remain to this day; Coventry recently enjoyed a performance at the city’s cathedral by Volgograd’s children’s choir.

While European relations have improved since the 1940s, unity at home has received less attention. As a result, Britain is riven with deep economic, political, educational and cultural divides. These fault lines are increasingly determined by geography, with a growing gap between our big metropolitan cities and almost everywhere else.

In comparison to other European countries, we face staggering levels of regional inequality; six of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe can been found in the UK. As outlined by Alan Milburn, the government’s former social mobility tsar, “the country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one.”

These divisions are poisoning our body politic. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, putting yourself in someone else's shoes is vital for developing a moral compass; in doing so "we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him..." But this is difficult when we have little interaction or experience of those with opposing views.

This is increasingly likely in geographically polarised Britain, with the places we live dominated by people who think alike. Our political leaders must commit time and energy to bridging these divides, just as the leaders of Europe did in the aftermath of the Second World War. By forging links between different parts of the country, a new era of domestic town twinning would do just that.


School exchanges between sister towns would offer an opportunity for children to be exposed to places, people and perspectives very different to their own. This would allow future generations to see things from an alternative and opposing perspective. It may also embed from a young age an awareness of the diversity of experiences seen by people across our highly unequal country.

MPs would be encouraged to spend time in their constituency’s sister town. First-hand exposure to voters in a very different part of the country would surely soften the views of even the most entrenched parliamentarian, making for a more civil debate in the Commons. Imagine the good this would do for Parliament today, with Brexit gridlocked because of the unwillingness of MPs to compromise.

In 2016 the Carnegie UK Trust launched its Twin Towns UK programme, a pilot linking twenty towns across the UK to examine how they might develop together. Emerging benefits include a reduction of insularity and a greater awareness of the bigger picture. Its focus was not on bridging economic divides – towns with similar socioeconomic characteristics were twinned – but initial outcomes from the scheme suggest a broader programme of domestic town twinning could have a powerful impact.

Looking further back, Camden has been twinned with Doncaster since the 1980s, a relationship that unionised Camden Town Hall workers forged in a display of solidarity with striking miners during the 1980s. Funds were raised to feed families of striking workers at the pit and Camden locals even drove north to deliver presents at Christmas. Though the relationship appears less active today, it serves as a powerful reminder of twinning’s capacity to bring people from very different places together.

As we prepare for Brexit it’s imperative that we protect existing twin town relationships with our European partners. This is of vital importance when we know sadly many of these are under threat from austerity and gloriously un-PC mayors. But we should look to breathe new life into these traditions too, where possible. Domestic town twinning would do just that: a step towards bringing Britain back together, just as a continent was reunited after the devastation of war.

Ben Glover is a researcher at the think tank Demos.