The Independent View: Time for the Lib Dems to capitalise on their cities’ opportunity

ldv centre for cities fringe - oct 2014There has been a flurry of interest in cities and the economic regeneration of the North from all sides of the political spectrum over the past few months, so it was not surprising to see them feature strongly during party conference season.

Over the three weeks, we created a platform for each of the parties to debate and explore how their parties could turn the rhetoric into reality, and win the hearts and minds of Britain’s cities at the 2015 Election. It was fascinating to see representatives of Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems argue that their party alone possessed an unrivalled philosophical affinity with urban voters.

(Pictured is the Centre for Cities fringe meeting, co-hosted with LibDemVoice – “Urban battlegrounds: how can the Liberal Democrats win in cities in 2015?” – with Stephen Williams MP, Cllr Wendy Taylor (Newcastle) and Lord (Ben) Stoneham.)

There is undoubtedly an increasing political imperative for parties to understand the needs of city dwellers, and to speak their language. In the case of the Lib Dems, the argument is particularly clear, given the genuine philosophical alignment of many of their core principles with a cities-led, devolution-focused policy platform. As Stephen Williams MP emphasised, cities and the people attracted to them – the young, diverse and ambitious – should be natural territory for the Party.

Both of these points came through strongly in Glasgow, in the conference hall and surrounding fringe events, as the topics of democracy, devolution and electoral reform dominated debate. There was clear support amongst the Party for greater localism – and while it was not always at the level of the city, there was no mistaking the support for a radical overhaul of the current relationship between Westminster and localities up and down the country.

There was a general consensus, articulated most clearly at our flagship event by two senior figures in Lib Dem local government – Councillor Wendy Taylor, Deputy Leader in Newcastle, and Paul Scriven, former leader of Sheffield City Council – that too much of the devolution debate is preoccupied with structures, and not enough is on the powers themselves and what places could actually achieve with them. Making the link between devolution, cities and the issues that matter to the people who live and work in them presents an important opportunity for the Lib Dems to respond to their core and future supporters.

A poll conducted by Lib Dem Voice during conference season, which canvassed the views of 586 party members on their local priorities ahead of the 2015 election, found delivering more affordable housing is overwhelmingly the issue of greatest concern, with almost half of all respondents (245) identifying this as their top priority. This top priority was followed by creating more and better jobs (105), and then improving public transport, delivering better education and training systems, and supporting local businesses to grow and prosper – all of which received similar support (77-81).

These results are important. Many cities currently lack the powers, funding and flexibility to address these issues in their communities. They operate in a system which is one of the most centralised political and fiscal in the world, where Westminster and Whitehall hold the lion’s share of money and control. Lib Dem members appear to be aware of this, with the polling revealing that they overwhelmingly believe UK cities are insufficiently represented at a national level (75 per cent) and, that Westminster does not understand what they need to prosper (65 per cent). And they also understand its consequences; that local governments lack the powers to drive economic growth (82 per cent) and the solution; that local leaders should be given greater powers to affect change in their cities (90 per cent).

With polling figures increasingly fixated on the prospect of another coalition in May 2015, the two larger parties would be wise to take heed of the views of Lib Dem members. Both Labour and the Conservatives have expressed strong interest and commitment towards a city devolution agenda – but with another looming coalition approaching, it could very well be the Lib Dems who make it happen.

* Andrew Carter is Acting Chief Executive of Centre for Cities

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This entry was posted in The Independent View.
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4 Comments

  • Tony Dawson 26th Oct '14 - 9:08am

    Devolution within England and Wales is far too important to be left to a ‘quick fix’ grab for power by ‘cities'(sic). The present ‘city regions’ are randomly-drawn and exclude important parts of their travel to work areas.

    After the police commissioners’ debacle, next thing we know we’ll be lumbered with elected ‘City Region’ Mayors 🙁

  • This would be a further transfer of powers and resources to cities, while the small towns and rural areas (especially those not within commuting distance of a city) get nothing. All as per usual then.

  • Independent view???

    According to Andrew Carter himself he is anything but independent. He is paid to promote a particular view. Nothing wrong with that and I am sure he did not chose the title for this piece in LDV.

    From a quick google around he has obviously had years experience as a lobbyist. He used to be a Director of an organisation called ‘Rocket Science’. Now he is employed to push the case of Centre for Cities.

    He is an enthusiast and an advocate for elected City Mayors (because ward based, party based democracy gets in the way of “important”, “strategic” decisions).
    Some Liberal Democrats may feel that what he has written here does not tell the whole story of what he is out to achieve.

    When he writes — “…. Many cities currently lack the powers, funding and flexibility to address these issues in their communities. They operate in a system which is one of the most centralised political and fiscal in the world, where Westminster and Whitehall hold the lion’s share of money and control.”.
    I expected him to go on to explain why he then advocates a system of City Mayors which are some of the most centralised in the world, where a Mayor holds the lion’s share of money and control. But he does not do that.

    His warm words about “localism” can be all things to all people. Am I alone in worrying about the increasing enthusiasm for those at the top to impose Big City Bosses in place of elected local councillors?

  • Stephen Hesketh 26th Oct '14 - 7:46pm

    Exactly what Tony Dawson, David Evans and John Tilley say!

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