After two years of speculation about the future, the Conservative race to be the next Prime Minister is underway. Brexit will be the biggest task the next occupant of Number 10 faces, but closer to home there are many important policy issues – flagging national productivity, stark geographical inequality, the housing affordability crisis, underfunded adult education, creaking social care – that have fallen by the wayside since 2016. Brexit can no longer be the excuse for not addressing these.
Despite warm rhetoric about the need to rebalance the economy, this government has been cooler on the Northern Powerhouse than its predecessor, has stalled on introducing the Shared Prosperity Fund, and the pace of urban devolution has slowed at exactly the same time as Westminster politicians turned their attention away from domestic politics.
The importance of cities in the national political debate has been overlooked lately. Despite this we are an urban nation and cities matter. They account for just 9 per cent of UK land but are home to over half the population, 60 per cent of jobs and 62 per cent of GVA. While Conservative Party’s heartlands may be in the shires and just one contender this evening has an urban constituency, any of those hoping to take up the One Nation mantle needs to have a programme for government that improves the lives of people living and working in cities.
To do this, here is where they should start:
Address local government’s funding problems
In the last decade, cities have shouldered nearly three quarters of all local government funding cuts, despite being home to just 54 per cent of the population. When measured per head, since 2009 people living in cities saw a local government cut of £386 each, compared to just £172 elsewhere in Britain.
These unequal spending cuts have severely hampered the ability of many economically weaker cities to effectively deliver public services and grow their local economies. Added to this, increases in the demand for social care have meant that other services have had to face even deeper cuts.
Some of the leadership candidates have pledged to increase public spending. This needs to apply to the Fair Funding Review for local government. But in addition to more money there are several almost cost free measures that would help cities better deliver public services and grow their economies.
The next Prime Minister should give local authorities more powers to raise and spend money as they see fit, including letting them set multi-year budgets. They should also find a long-term solution to our social care crisis as the current system is unsustainable.
Build homes where they are needed
The housing crisis is one of the biggest domestic challenges that this country faces. There is now rightly a political consensus that we must build more housing and the government has set itself an ambitious target to build 300,000 new homes each year. I would be surprised if any leadership contender reneged on this goal.
But contrary to popular belief, we do not have a national housing supply crisis; supply in many parts of the country is more than able to keep up with demand. It’s in places where demand is high and increasing, many of which are in the Greater South East, where supply has been unable to respond to demand, and in fact has actively restricted the provision of new homes by giving undue weight to the concerns of existing homeowners.
To ensure that housing supply meets demand in popular areas, the next Prime Minister should reform the planning system and introduce a flexible zoning system based on the Japanese system. They should also stop inflating demand by subsidising homeownership through government initiatives like Help to Buy. These policies only raise prices, increasing the wealth of existing homeowners and further pushing up rental costs in already expensive cities.
This shift is likely to be a difficult pill to swallow for a party that holds property ownership as a central tenet of its philosophy. Yet homeownership as a share of private housing has declined in every city since 1981. The next Prime Minister should recognise that buying is now an unattainable goal for many people and do more to ensure there is a ready supply of secure rented homes in places where people want to live.
Improve transport connections within cities
Politicians find it hard to resist the allure of the hard hat and hi-vis jacket that accompany any big infrastructure project.
The transport policy focus in recent years has reflected this. HS2, Northern Powerhouse Rail, and a third runway at Heathrow all aim to improve connections between cities, either in Britain or internationally. But this focus risks misunderstanding the reality of everyday travel for most people.
Some 50 per cent of people live in one local authority but work in another. But more than 75 per cent live and work within the same city region. So people are travelling to work but the vast majority are not travelling long distances.
The reality that the vast majority of people live and work within their home city-region, rather than commuting between them, should inform the new Prime Minister’s transport policy. Investment in local transport to efficiently take commuters from the suburbs to the city centre should be priority.
On a practical level this means improving buses and suburban and light rail connections, encouraging cities to exercise their powers over their local transport networks and implementing TfL-style integration on the network.
Minimise trading barriers with the EU
Sadly I cannot finish a blog on priorities for the next Prime Minister without mentioning the B- word. Like the country as a whole, Britain’s cities are overwhelmingly dependent on the EU for trade. It is the largest export market for every British city.
Cities generate 77 per cent of Britain’s total services exports, and over half of these go to the European Union. London, Edinburgh and Cardiff would be among the biggest losers should Britain leave the EU without a comprehensive deal which includes services.
The next Prime Minister should be mindful of the importance of the EU to the livelihoods of people living in Britain’s cities – a majority of the country’s population – and ensure that any future Brexit deal keeps trade with the continent in both goods and services as frictionless as possible.
This leadership contest is particularly interesting for those of us focused on urban policy; it may well be the first one in British history in which a politician goes from a city hall to Downing Street – potentially setting a precedent for aspiring future prime ministers.
Irrespective of who triumphs on the BBC tonight, and who goes on to win this contest, the next Prime Minister has a big in-tray waiting for them – and Brexit is just the start.