Opinion: Make your city a global success in six easy steps – part 1

In 1900 just one in ten people lived in cities. Today over half do and nearly all population growth in the next few decades is expected to be in larger conurbations. Around the world cities are the engines of growth and prosperity, with governments working to tackle the challenges that brings with it.

The UK has a major city problem: with the exception of London our cities underperform. Other countries do it better – the concentration on one city at the expense of the rest is unusual. As the Royal Society report The Future of Cities (2014) says:

The relative underperformance of the large secondary cities, and the low number of cities that perform well above the national average, sets the UK apart.

So how do we fix it? There’s a lot of evidence around from cities across the world that suggests we can do it and, after decades of getting it wrong, we may finally be heading in the right direction, albeit not entirely smoothly.

There are six steps every city needs to take. I describe the first three in this first part and the final three in part 2 of the article next week.

Step one: plan strategically

Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? And yet many of our cities have long comprised different councils who barely talk to each other, the only “strategic” approach coming from Whitehall civil servants gathering information filtered through so many agencies that it ends up having little connection to reality. Greater Manchester does a good job with ten authorities working together on shared strategic vision and others are catching up with Combined Authorities, but without a strategic city region approach – however you achieve it – there’s little chance of your city becoming a significant global player.

Step two: devolve power

There are many different ways to devolve power from national government down to cities – the precise details probably matter less than getting on and doing it. This isn’t just political dogma: the Second Tier Cities (2012) study by Liverpool John Moores University and others identifies a positive correlation between greater devolution to cities and higher GDP per person. Look around the world and you’ll see that more centralised governments like the UK and France tend to have underperforming cities, with more decentralised countries such as Germany doing better. I don’t think that’s a deliberate policy to run down the provinces – it’s more a natural outcome of nearly all spending in our secondary cities being controlled by people who don’t understand them and rarely, if ever, even venture out to visit them.

Step three: boost the transport infrastructure

Transport infrastructure is the lifeblood of cities – the ability to move large numbers of people around reasonably quickly is essential. Roads will only get you so far: there’s a limited amount of space to build them and once you’ve used it up, there’s not a great deal more you can do. Rapid transit systems: trams, underground trains and bus networks along with high quality cycling networks are needed in addition to roads. Without a good transport infrastructure, your city cannot flourish.

Although the UK is seeing a jump in transport investment, we still ration it. Why? If there are fifty projects all of which will produce an economic return why not fund them all rather than just picking the top ten? There’s a big difference between capital investment on infrastructure and day-to-day revenue spending. If the problem is accounting rules that make some economic figures looks worse then change the rules. When doing the right thing for the economy makes politicians look bad, something’s not right!

Steps four to six are in the concluding part of my article which will appear next Monday.

* Iain Roberts is a Stockport councillor, LGA Peer and consultation, communications and public affairs consultant specialising in the built environment.

Read more by or more about .
This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Hi Ian – agree wholeheartedly with the transport point, the network effect of more people being able to meet and work together is enormous. Many companies in the North are restricted in growth by simply not being able to find the staff they need to take on more work. London companies have a huge pool to hire from, with nearly 10 million people in the greater London area and 997,000 people travelling to London to work every day.

  • I would suggest one needs to look at the calibre of people. In the UK in the 19C many councillors were engineers and industrialists who created and ran the Industrial Revolution. We now have councillors and planning staff who cannot understand plans.
    Plans are only as good as the people who design and implement them.

  • Charlie 5th Jan ’15 – 9:14pm
    “..In the UK in the 19C many councillors were engineers and industrialists who created and ran the Industrial Revolution. ”

    Charlie, do you have any evidence at all for this assertion?

    Who were these engineers that “ran the industrial revolution” whilst also being councillors?

    Did anyone at all “run the industrial revolution” or was the term “industrial evolution” just a useful shorthand for historians to describe a period when there was an unprecedented and rapid series of usually isolated and unrelated changes in commercial practice and technology?

    What proportion of 19th century councillors were shopkeepers, publicans, florists, ,magicians, clerks, cordwanglers, railwaymen, the local squire or local doctor?

    My guess is that you do not actually know and this claim about engineers is another example of the Charlie ‘wishful thinking’ school of history.


  • >Around the world cities are the engines of growth and prosperity

    I think you need to look at the findings coming out of the BDUK project. With widespread access to high speed internet connections, the need for businesses that largely trade online to be city based has markedly reduced.

  • Iain Roberts 6th Jan '15 - 8:32am

    Roland – that’s an interesting point, and one that I’ve looked at. In logistical terms you’re right – where businesses largely trade online (and most don’t at the moment) they don’t need to be in a city. However, there still seems to be a benefit around innovation in having people physically close together rather than spread out across the country on the end of a broadband connection and those types of jobs and companies still benefit from being in high density employment areas.

  • paul barker 6th Jan '15 - 10:07am

    Completely agree, especially with Step Two. The Coalition is at last getting on with it & its vital we do nothing to slow the process down. It will be messy & uneven but its up to activists in each City region to get the best deal they can as soon as possible.

  • @ Roland

    Internet based businesses still need staff. Our business is 100% internet based but our biggest barrier to growth is finding skilled programmers, artists and designers.

  • Top article, agree with much of it – you only have to look at British city today to see where its got to as regards those processes. I agree with Charlies point too – how good the citizens are at designing a city is probably the biggest factor.

  • @Iain & Gareth – I’m not dismissing the role of cities nor the concerns and real points you make, only noting something that has been noted, whether it is a real trend or just applicable to a small sector of businesses is open to debate and further investigation.

    From my point-of-view, the upgrade of the public infrastructure to where I live (part of the BDUK project) will enable me to locate a business venture in my village (utilising office accommodation that has sat empty since before 2008), rather than be forced to locate it in specific areas in local towns (who previously have benefited from good telecoms). What this will mean is that instead of having people travelling into the centre of a local town they can end their journey a few miles out of town… [Aside: yes I could of installed my own internet connection, I did investigate this along with setting up my own community-based ISP – like Rutland Telecom, but the way BDUK was structured made this not a viable business proposition…]

    I therefore suggest that whilst BDUK will now enable a few to run businesses in “really rural” areas, the real impact I suggest is the enabling of our towns and cities to extend into their hinterlands.

  • John Tilley
    Murdo MacDonald MP, Liberal MP for Inverness, Civil Engineer -founding Partner of MacDonald and Partners, Colonel in RE in WW1. MacDonald and Partners is now Mott Macdonald. The reason why the Inst of Civil Engineers HQ was located at Gt George St because it was near the Houses of Parliament and the Government could call upon their advice. I suggest you look at minutes of council meetings of most boroughs until about 1939; most councillors were local business men. Look at Pilkington-St Helens, Guest, Keen and Nettlefied in S Wales, Boots- Nottingham, Wills- Bristol, Cadbury – Birmingham, Rowntree-York, etc, etc. L

    The actual number of people who created the Industrial Revolution were few in number and many were related through marriage and connected by being Dissenters , suggest you read The Day The Universe Changed and Connections by J Burke and The Lunar Men by J Uglow.

    More recently within Greater Manchester Council , a highly experience foreman who had been involved with the construction of motorways , including Thelwell Viaduct ( M63 over the Manchester Ship Canal ) gave up being a councillor because of the waffle” They spend 2 hours deciding on an issue when I could make a decision in 2 minutes”. The Chairman of the Highways Traffic Committee thought he understood transport because he worked in it – he was a car park attendant! The incorporation of town boroughs into metropolitan counties resulted in many professionals no longer having the time to become involved in local politics , an uncle who ran his own architectural practice gave up for this reason.

    When we have a political system where waffle persuades highly experience and competent people to leave but encourages the unskilled and uneducated to become involved, partly in order to claim expenses, then mistakes will be made. If some one owns a factory operating at the fore front of trade and technology; the money is coming from rates paid by themselves , then probably that person will make sure the technical specification is suitable and the the structure is completed on time and to budget, be it a school, university, hospital, library or public baths.

    The Liberal Party was the party of manufacture and industry and was largely responsible for creating our 19c and pre WW2 civic heritage but we have appeared to forgotten our past .

  • In terms of funding transport infrastructure, the current appraisal system used by the Department for Transport has some significant flaws. Its much harder for smaller cities to get the critical mass (population and movement) to justify expenditure on capital schemes. So any benefit cost ratios are going to show London schemes in a more favourable light. In addition, London (like Northern Ireland) benefits from a regulated integrated transport system that encourages greater demand. I have come to the conclusion that the Department for Transport probably needs to have a separate appraisal system for London and one for everyone else.

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • David Evans
    Jeff, If I remember the good old days correctly, EU citizens didn't need visas to come and work in the UK, so the stats you choose to present are very slante...
  • Jeff
    Roland 29th Mar '23 - 3:37pm: Brexit has effectively made the UK unattractive to foreign workers (with the level of skills we require)… In t...
  • Jeff
    Roland 29th Mar '23 - 3:37pm: The shortage of GPs was predicted some years back and has the same root causes as the shortage of HGV drivers and other...
  • Roland
    The fundamental flaw in the OfSTED inspection framework that this tragic case exposed was the 2012 legal exemption from future inspections (unless specific conc...
  • Roland
    @Michael BG re. claw back and taper Firstly, with UBI/GBI we need to get away from the current benefits culture where benefits are given out and then if people...