Collaboration can make our towns and cities stronger

Thursday, 27 October 2016

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Keith Aitken, Regional Senior Director in Bilfinger GVA's Edinburgh office, considers how: 'Collaboration can make our towns and cities stronger'.

"If you want to be a successful city that attracts investment, what are the ingredients you need?

That was the key issue debated by leaders from 10 of the UK’s largest municipalities at the recent Core Cities summit London.

The debate is a crucial one from a Scottish perspective with the uncertainties of Brexit and a second independence referendum looming in the background, both of which could significantly impact the funding, investment and taxation prospects for our cities - and could alter the landscape for generations to come.

That being the case, how can Scotland’s cities ensure they don’t get left behind if the political goalposts are moved?

The UK’s provincial cities are critical to the economic growth of the country as a whole, and collaboration between many of the core cities has never been stronger.

By combining forces into the ‘Northern Powerhouse’, ‘Midlands Engine’ and the southwest cities of Cardiff and Bristol, it is now evident such a link between cities provides a powerful voice which can command the attention of national governments.

Scotland’s sole representative at the event was Glasgow, from which Councillor Frank McAveety, Leader of the Council, and members of his Economic Development team offered their perspective from our largest conurbation.

However, Glasgow has had to work very hard indeed to maintain the lone Scottish presence in this great cities club.

The Core Cities Alliance launched a document at the Summit entitled “Whole Place Leadership” and on the same day the Centre for Cities published a paper on how UK cities compare with their European counterparts.

It became clear from the research detailed in these publications, and the observations expressed by the various leaders of the cities, that common solutions to a number of fundamental issues must be found.

Individually, the UK’s provincial cities currently cannot compete with other similar-sized conurbations across the globe.

One reason for that is productivity is simply too low in UK cities. A small increase in this vital measure could have a major impact on the UK’s national GDP. At present the gap between the total taxes raised across our core cities and the total spent on all public services is £53 billion per year.

London is also considered to be too dominant both in a UK and European context. Stronger provincial cities would help redress this balance.

For example, the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ has proven very effective in attracting foreign investment because its combined market provides scale and depth. It has shown that if cities connect with each other and offer mutually beneficial support much can be achieved.

The quest for increased devolution to regional cities is a battle that needs to be won to allow locally elected authorities to serve their indigenous populations better.

However, real growth will only be achieved with greater social inclusion. This key measure has been grasped by all UK cities, including Glasgow. An example is the transformational health programme ‘Improving the Cancer Journey’, which has shown that assertive and confident leadership can create a model across several different agencies to tackle one of the most pressing health issues that the city faces.

In a wider Scottish context, Edinburgh’s ‘City Deal’ together with the smaller Growth Funds in Stirling and Ayrshire will be subject to formal approval by the UK Government in this year’s autumn statement. It is vitally important these are approved without delay. By doing so, all of Scotland’s key urban areas can collaborate more effectively to attract investment and fund much-needed infrastructure that in turn will boost higher value jobs in tourism, food and drink, informatics, technology, media and telecommunications and the bioscience sector.

Without such joined-up working Scotland’s towns and cities could become isolated and lose a competitive edge in the post-Brexit era."