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Andrew Carter: City leaders have a common ambition for change

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You’d expect me to say that cities are not given enough credit and attention in Westminster. But the current maelstrom of national politics has never illustrated it better: the voices of urban areas are being drowned out.

It is cities that drive the national economy, create great jobs, encourage innovation and help people back to work, but too often their voice is missing from national conversations about the country’s future. To address this, we asked elected leaders from across the UK about their views, aspirations and priorities in the inaugural UK City Leaders Survey, published in December.

No two cities are alike. But what respondents told us shows a clear commonality of agenda across our urban areas: responding to Brexit, getting more devolution and influencing the upcoming spending review. Building more affordable homes was the number one policy priority and social care was identified as the public service under the greatest pressure.

So far, perhaps, so unsurprising. But I was struck most by answers on the nature of the relationship that elected city leaders’ have with central government. Despite being the leaders of places that are home to most people and businesses, a staggering 84% said the needs of urban areas were not sufficiently recognised at the national level.

Add to that the findings that nearly a third of respondents said their relationship with ministers was negative (just a fifth rated it positive) and that only 30% got on positively with civil servants and there is much cause for concern.

Urban policy in the UK has improved significantly in recent years. More substantive devolution and city deals have given major cities more powers and resources that they need to prosper.

But the recognition of the importance of cities to their own residents and the country at large is not established. Next year, with the spending review, the UK shared prosperity fund and – for England at least – a devolution framework will be a critical test of the government’s attitude and appetite for more devolution.

Together these are a chance to establish a new settlement for local leadership. This should empower urban areas post-Brexit both to deal with the everyday issues that matter and to shape the future of their places, putting power in the hands of those best placed to help bridge growing economic and social divides.

Westminster is preoccupied and feels increasingly remote from the daily lives of people across the country. But this is an opportunity and, as the Urban Leaders Survey shows, city leaders have the ambition and desire to grab it. Now more than ever it is imperative for the government to listen to the urban voice and to give cities the tools they need to get on with the job.

Andrew Carter, chief executive, Centre for Cities

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