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The occassion of the Core Cities conference in Newcastle next week highlights important questions about how council...
The occassion of the Core Cities conference in Newcastle next week highlights important questions about how councils represent their interests.

The establishment of the group - made up of the eight largest English cities outside London - reflects the surge in interest in city issues that has accompanied the somewhat over-hyped urban renaissance of recent years, and a sense that the interest of big cities were not being properly represented in the corridors of power. The cities do have distinct interests and priorities. Arguably they are more concerned with the classic urban issues of regeneration, economic development, planning and transport than with that day-to-day struggle over responsibility for public service delivery which consumes so much energy at the Locla Government Association.

Indeed it is possible to envisage the basis for some kind of new settlement between the cities and Whitehall. In this, the councils give up the unequal battle for local discretion over services such as education and social services - perhaps allowing them to be subject to direct accountability through new single purpose agencies - while ministers give urban leaders the regulatory and fiscal freedom they need to develop their cities as regional economic hubs and global players.

The LGA is a strong and improving organisation, but it is hard to imagine its leaders - even if they wanted to - being able to steer through such a radical rethink. After all, it is hardly relevant to district councils - lacking either the geographical coherence or the economic clout of the big cities.

Yet no sooner are the core cities developing their own strategy than already some are questioning whether their own interests are being sufficiently well served. Even within the group of eight there is a danger of bureaucratic inertia and the rule of the lowest common denominator in the group's analysis and ambitions. Unless next week's event builds on early enthusiasm to demonstrate policy innovation and the scope for influence s ome of the cities may be tempted to revert to a primary strategy of focusing on building their own individual voice and case in London.

The future will see large councils operating thorough a complex web of their own individual networks, groupings of councils with similar geographical economic or social interests, the LGA, and other national bodies such as the Local Government Information Unit and the New Local Government Network. This is as it should be in a plural democracy. The challenge is to make sure that whether singing solo, chamber, or orchestrally, councils are hitting the right notes.

Matthew Taylor

Director, Institute for Public Policy Research

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