The prevailing mood at this year’s Conservative conference was one of lament – for the loss of MPs in the last election, but also for the lack of a clear vision on how to win back those voters it failed to engage with at the polls in June.
The Conservatives lost ground in two key demographics at the election: young people and voters in major cities. During conference season the government failed to set out a policy platform that gets to grip with the challenges facing these groups, or a compelling vision for the future of urban Britain.
Take its announcements on housing. The most pressing challenge in cities like Bristol, Brighton and Cambridge, where house prices are more than ten times the average wage, is that nowhere near enough new homes are being built and another £10bn for the help-to-buy scheme will do nothing to address this problem. The Conservatives need to consider making more land available for housing on green belt sites, and introducing land value capture policies.
Similarly, by prioritising higher education in its announcement on tuition fees, the Conservatives overlooked the need to significantly improve further education. In cities such as Birmingham, Bradford, Luton and Stoke, more than 14% of the adult population have no formal qualifications. Tuition fees are largely irrelevant for them, but how we support these individuals to access education opportunities barely warranted a mention from politicians in Manchester.
The Conservatives offered little indication of how it would build on the city devolution agenda. It could have used the conference to announce devolution of more powers to the English city regions, such as control over taxes, the capacity to set city-specific minimum wages, or stronger powers over compulsory purchase orders. But there was barely a single reference to devolution in speeches.
Moreover, there is a sense of disconnect between national leadership and the Conservative metro-mayors. For example, at a Centre for Cities conference fringe event, West Midlands mayor Andy Street criticised the Department for Education for failing to adequately engage with the mayors on further education policy, citing the delay in devolving the city region’s adult education budget to the mayor. Similarly, Tees Valley Ben Houchen said the leadership must focus more on highlighting its record of delivering and less on engaging with Jeremy Corbyn in a debate about capitalism.
Only a few months ago, the Conservatives had an opportunity to make unprecedented inroads into Labour’s electoral dominance of urban Britain. But they have failed to come up with the ideas needed and risk squandering the progress being made by the metro-mayors and Conservative city leaders in delivering for urban communities. The clock is ticking for the Conservatives to do so.
Andrew Carter, chief executive, Centre for Cities