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The concept of ‘managed decline’ has long use in British politics.
As well as being applied to the British Empire in the post-war years, the strategy was considered for Liverpool by government ministers in the aftermath of riots in Toxteth in 1981, as revealed by official papers published in 2011.
Abi Brown (Con), deputy leader of Stoke City Council, invoked the phrase in relation to the government’s current approach to funding city authorities. But in doing so she offered an alternative solution to local government’s funding concerns after a decade of austerity, the subject of Cities Outlook 2019, a report released today by the Centre for Cities.
“Growth can be the only answer if you won’t accept managed decline of your city,” she told an audience at the launch event for the report.
Declining post-industrial cities are a staple of discussions about regional imbalance. As the centre’s report confirms, city residents have shouldered almost three quarters of all real-terms cuts in local government spending over the last decade, despite being home to just 54% of the country’s population.
But portrayals of decline are still unfair, Ms Brown says, laughing away the frequent claim that “there’s more culture in a yoghurt than in Stoke”, which was shortlisted to become the UK City of Culture 2021.
“The ownership of place is something councils have really stepped up to over the last few years,” she said – something many of her colleagues in other cities would no doubt concur with.
Nick Forbes (Lab), leader of Newcastle City Council, was also keen to downplay reports of city decline. “There’s absolutely no point saying our cities are cesspits of desperation,” he told the event.
He added that cities are the focal point for much of modern life. “They’re where the really great things in our country really happen.”
At the same time Mr Forbes, also the Labour group leader at the Local Government Association, acknowledged he must make the case to central government for funding cities, which have suffered what he calls “the compound effect of austerity”.
The trouble is that local authorities have proved resilient in the decade of austerity. “One of the reasons local government is so easy to cut is because it doesn’t fail,” said Tony Travers, director of LSE London and LGC columnist.
This failure to fail has incentivised ministers to keep cutting. The upshot, Mr Travers said, is that many local authorities could become inversions of their 19th century selves, devoting all their resources to social care services at the expense of broader civic functions like street maintenance, transport and planning.
In the absence of further funding, city councils must return to what Ms Brown alluded to: growth. But to do this more effectively more power must be devolved from the centre.
There are some obvious candidates. Mr Travers noted that business rates and council tax rates account for roughly 5% of the UK’s total tax take each, implying plenty of room for local authorities to raise more resources locally.
Mr Forbes also fielded prospects for more esoteric levies, including a ‘tourism tax’ on hotel bedrooms. Calling it a “no-brainer”, he noted wryly that councils would gain income without residents paying a penny.
Such easy gains are not possible under the current regime. Put dramatically by Mr Forbes, UK cities might well have less flexibility than their counterparts in communist China. Readers will know what relaxing central control in that country did for its economic growth.
Jimmy Nicholls, features editor