David Waite, University of St Andrews
Cities policy in the UK has seen a strong revival of interest since the late 1990s. Though urban and regional policy took many prior forms (from spatial-Keynesianism to Thatcher’s overhaul and turn to enterprise zone initiatives, for example), the “State of the English Cities”, the “Review of Sub-national Economic Development” and the “Barker Review of Housing” can be seen, among other interventions, to reflect crucial moments in the production of policy capability on English cities.
The rise of public policy think tanks devoted to assessing city economic development has accompanied this refocus. Here workstreams led by the “Work Foundation” and “Institute for Public Policy Research” (IPPR) are prominent examples. Spinning out of the latter by 2007, the “Centre for Cities”, core funded by the Gatsby Foundation, has sought to position itself at the vanguard of urban policy innovations.
A set of policy positions and outputs mark the role played by the Centre for Cities. In terms of the former, the devolution of powers and revenue-raising tools to regional levels has been a long-standing recommendation. Citing the UK’s centralised governance structure vis à vis other OECD economies, the argument is mounted that local representatives need the powers to support their city economies in a way that reflects unique city conditions and trajectories. Rather than central government dictating blunt one-size-fits-all policy, addressing diverse local needs, it is argued, requires tool kits tailored to and accessible at local levels.
Across the centre’s work more generally, a non-partisan stance appears closely guarded. Links with London-based academics and advisors may signal a key epistemic community and a core channel of affiliation, however, numerous local authority, third and private sector relationships have also been forged.
In terms of outputs, the annual “Cities Outlook” is positioned as the authoritative guide (or, to some, the “bible”) on UK city economies. Six versions of the Outlook, going back to 2008, have now been released. The Outlook usefully calls on a set of metrics by which a broad understanding of the UK’s largest 64 urban economies can be attained. Building on ONS and NOMIS data principally, city-region measures, hinging on “primary urban area” definitions, are deployed to bring functioning metropolitan systems into view. Preceding the annual health check, depth analyses of recessionary recovery, unemployment challenges and housing market dynamics have provided thematic introductions in recent years. Alongside the Outlook each year, specific city viewpoints as well as commentaries on funding tools and governance approaches set out to bolster the evidence base.
The influence think tanks have on policy agendas and decision makers is a critical, if not driving, measure of efficacy. In terms of the centre’s role – witnessing, among other things, the appointment of a Minister for Cities; a programme of devolution around “city deals”; and the establishment of LEPs in the wake of RDAs being disbanded – one can point to a clear alignment between the broad overtures made by the Centre for Cities and the cities policy emerging under the coalition government.
Cities policy is a deeply complex area. However, while certain policy positions may be contested for relying on patchy empirical foundations (for instance, evidence on the devolution and growth link) and while recent growth agendas strain, like many others, to strike a balance between the “realistic” and aspirational, the Centre for Cities appears successful in capturing the attention of policymakers and steering a legitimating narrative for policy development. Looking forward, it will be interesting to track the evolution of the centre’s work as the localism and deals programmes progress and to monitor engagement with wider, resurgent debates around industrial policy.