For more than 80 years, oppressive centralisation and regional economic and social imbalance have plagued the UK.
In that time, policy approaches have come and gone and largely failed. The RSA City Growth Commission aims to break the mould.
Previous policies sought to increase regional productivity on the basis that wealth disparities in economic activity were nationally inefficient.
The growth commission rejects these ideas, negating past concerns around national fairness. Instead it homes in on the larger (metro) cities to make a bigger contribution to national economic growth. In this, a degree of economic variation across the country would be inevitable.
Perhaps we should temper this approach with questions of national equity and social inclusion
The commission outlines how cities with devolved powers and resources would accrue ‘agglomeration benefits’ from improved transport connections, resulting in economic growth.
It argues only a few cities should get these enhanced powers. It is highly likely in the short term that areas that do not get them will lose workers, consumers and capital to those that do.
Local government outside the metros will just have to like it or lump it, and find their secondary place within this new city order.
We could see wider non-metro benefits to this growth if the success of the metro area resulted in increased property prices and other associated downsides of ‘agglomeration success’. People and investment capital would start to look to cheaper locations, beyond the metro. However, in an era of economic turbulence, the pathway to this is not certain.
England has been painfully and damagingly slow to recognise the importance of cities, which have been the front of economic growth and social change since Mesopotamia 7,000 years ago.
Cities are important and we must rapidly devolve power to them and to local government more generally. However, agglomeration is only one of many policy ideas. Perhaps we should temper this approach with questions of national fairness and social inclusion.
It would be a real shame if our belated focus on cities meant we merely moved from a centralised national economy, riven with inequalities, to an equally divisive metro-based one.
Neil McInroy, chief executive, Centre for Local Economic Strategies