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Amid the obsession with big, ministers ignore mid-sized cities at their peril

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Commentary on moves to ensure the benefits of devolution are spread beyond the biggest cities

One could legitimately criticise this decade’s governments for perceiving devolution and regional growth through the prism of an obsession with the shiny, big, new and high profile.

Thus glitzy HS2, seen as the national backbone connecting wealthy London to the Northern Powerhouse, has been at the forefront of the ministerial mind. Less glamorous rail routes linking northern cities have received relative peanuts while the humble bus has barely registered in the ministerial consciousness.

Meanwhile, the strong leadership of easily identifiable mayors has been lauded; the more traditional leader and council model is insufficiently sexy to woo ministers when it comes to doling out previously centrally-held powers.

Similarly, there has been an obsession with the biggest regional cities, the epicentres of most of the mayor-led combined authorities. Greater Manchester CA has been the towering skyline poster child of devolution; the West Midlands CA – built around Birmingham – is gaining ground. Liverpool City Region and the West of England CAs, the latter centred around Bristol, also follow this pattern, even if Cambridgeshire & Peterborough and (in particular) Tees Valley CAs do not.

Indeed, the Conservatives general election manifesto last year drew a distinction between “great cites”, singled out as the recipients of devolution to elected mayors, and the rest of the country. No definition of a great city was supplied, although it is widely believed to refer to the 10 UK conurbations in the Core Cities group.

So our medium-sized cities feel left behind, neglected and eager to win a greater share of attention. In a drive to win over ministers, their representative grouping Key Cities launched an all-party parliamentary group in Westminster on Monday. The aim is to work with ministers to win these medium-sized cities and towns a fairer share of power and investment.

The grouping, stretching from Sunderland to Plymouth; Blackpool to Southend covers a population of 5.8 million. The £133bn it pumps into the British economy is equivalent to the gross value added by Scotland, the all-party group heard.

Whereas the UK’s 10 Core Cities have hogged much of the limelight, the key cities insist that, boosted by the government’s industrial strategy, they have land available to expand and can win investors greater returns.

Addressing the meeting Key Cities’ chair, Wakefield MDC leader Peter Box (Lab), said: “We felt that in many of the big decisions made by the government about investment cities of our size were overlooked.”

Unsurprisingly Key Cities residents have felt disgruntled by their lowly out-of-sight, out-of-mind status. Cllr Box explained how this manifested itself: “All key cities apart from one voted to leave the EU; all the core cities apart from one voted to remain.”

This theme was taken up by New Local Government Network director Adam Lent who is writing a prospectus for the Key Cities group as a prelude to a full paper due to be presented to the government in advance of the autumn Budget.

“The vote wasn’t just about the EU – it was about a call to be included and engaged with,” Mr Lent said.

Of attendees of the meeting, Bradford City MDC leader Susan Hinchcliffe (Lab) spoke of the importance of skills and Norwich City Council chief executive Laura McGillivray (mindful of the successes of Hull and Coventry in this field) of the rejuvenating effect of culture.

Sunderland Central MP Julie Elliott (Lab) said her area was “getting squeezed between Tees Valley and North of Tyne [the fledgling combined authority due to hold mayoral elections next year]”. She warned of an unfair disparity with “huge” combined authorities getting more than their fair share of funding. Ms Elliott is hardly wrong: in his autumn Budget chancellor Philip Hammond announced half of a new £1.7bn transforming cities fund would be distributed to the six mayoral combined authorities; the rest of the country will share the rest.

Wakefield chief executive Merran McRae said the Key Cities’ size left them at a disadvantage to their Core City counterparts, which were often sufficiently large that they did not need to specialise as much.

“We can’t all be the fintech or the meditech capital of the UK,” Ms McRae said. “Some of the levers that we need will be more complicated than those that the larger areas need.”

Some might say that the levers required to get governments less preoccupied with the biggest cities will be similarly complicated. (Key Cities is not alone in this: vast swathes of the country are in agreement our political masters are overly supportive of London, the city in which they collectively spend most of their time; the County Councils Network, District Councils Network and Special Interest Group of Municipal Authorities all make powerful cases for the unique needs of their members.)

Key Cities is promising a cooperative attitude to ministers but perhaps the biggest lever to getting them to look beyond the big cities has already been pulled. The result of the Brexit referendum was heavily tilted by the disgruntlement of the Key Cities’ electorate, showing why our Key Cities cannot be ignored in future.

Insiders within the 20 Key Cities insist they are pushing at an open door. They seek to frame Key Cities as a body ministers need to work with to fulfil their priorities, rather than a campaigning organisation lambasting the government at every opportunity. Clearly earmarked portfolios within the Key Cities organisation will give ministers a set of partners with which to work.

Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry, in particular, has emphasised that he wants to see devolution “across the whole north”, namechecking areas such as his home county Lancashire as priority areas for new mayoral deals. He is believed to be receptive to the merits of previously less fashionable areas.

Ministers may have realised that size isn’t everything. They still like shiny and bold though and they may now find such attributes in partners such as Coventry, city of culture 2021; Portsmouth, home of the Spinnaker Tower, and the UK’s leading car manufacturing city, Sunderland.

Nick Golding, editor, LGC

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