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Why cities should drive growth and not rely on Stormont

By Andrew Webb

Published 11/08/2015

Stormont may have too much influence on our cities
Stormont may have too much influence on our cities

Thanks to my previous role as a city councillor, I still get the odd phone call from former constituents asking me why their bin wasn't collected or why the grass verges on our roads are getting so long. Depending on how irate they sound usually determines where I direct these calls, but it has really got me thinking about the role our city council plays in our lives.

It can't really just be about 'bins, bogs and burials', can it? Anyone who has enjoyed the various events, such as the Tall Ships, or any business, arts or community group that avails of the various supports, knows our council plays a much bigger role. Rightly so - Belfast is a key driver of the Northern Ireland economy. Close to 15% of Northern Ireland's businesses are in Belfast and 30% of jobs are based in the city. That said, I think it is time for a bolder approach or we face the risk of falling further behind our competitors.

In my view, global competition is no longer about the country level. Jobs, talent, education, lifestyle, innovation, business environment, you name it - it is city engaging with city and city competing against city. While the story of cities as drivers of economic growth is not a new one, within the rest of the UK, a government that favours city devolution and the after-effects of the Scottish Referendum have combined to create heightened attention to the role that all parts of the UK need to play in delivering economic growth, particularly cities.

Empowerment and decentralisation have moved front and centre of the debate in Great Britain. 'City deals' are playing a key part in driving the city agenda forward.

The coalition Government introduced city deals in December 2011 for the eight largest cities outside London ­- places like Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham etc. In 2013 and 2014, the Government agreed a second wave of city deals, with 18 more cities. New devolution deals with Sheffield, Greater Manchester and Leeds followed in 2014 and early 2015, providing more flexibilities than the city deals. City deals are far reaching and diverse in their remit. In broad terms, they have tended to focus on:

∫ Greater powers to deliver the skills and jobs that local businesses and people need

∫ Greater freedoms and tools to support local business through localised venture capital funds or city-led business support hubs

∫ Greater powers over critical infrastructure, such as broadband provision and transport budgets: would Belfast have chosen the same bus lanes policy as Stormont, I wonder?

∫ Enhanced governance and accountability: some city deals have delivered directly-elected mayors. A key element of Great Britain's city deals is the scale of local authority collaboration involved. Although named after the core city, many of the deals have included up to 10 neighbouring local authorities. In total, the Government has committed in the region of £5bn across the city deals. It is estimated that 175,000 additional jobs and about 40,000 more apprenticeships will flow over the next 30 years as a result of these deals.

For the first years of city deals, it was understood that these deals were solely for English cities. Then, in somewhat of a surprise, Glasgow announced a £1.3bn deal had been negotiated with the UK Treasury.

The UK committed £500m in additional funding, with the balance from the Scottish Executive and participating local authorities. Now the Welsh cities are pushing for deals. We should be, too.

Cities are the places that drive most growth for the country, but let me be clear, they are also typically home to high levels of deprivation. Any push for growth must therefore be one that improves the lot of all the people who live and work in it. It can't just be about more GDP and more wealth. 'Well-being' should be at the core of all we are trying to achieve. Championed by the Carnegie Trust, there is a growing call for a well-being framework for Northern Ireland. That's a story for another day.

For years, Belfast has been awash with reports, forecasts, masterplans, strategies, action plans and working groups 'setting the path for growth'. So, at this point, we know our challenges are around employability, growing our business base, increasing innovation and exports and improving our infrastructure and 'liveability'. There is no doubt that much progress has been made and the city is a vastly improved and improving place, but I often sense a deference to Stormont, or maybe it's a Stormont-imposed duty to seek permission.

In the spirit of it being better to ask forgiveness than permission, Glasgow went straight to the Treasury in London to negotiate their city deal. Bickering and crises in Stormont appears to have stolen any clarity of thought or strategic drive and could mean we are missing a golden economic opportunity. What Northern Ireland's cities really need are the ability to do these things themselves, using even greater devolved powers and freedoms to attract business, create investment streams, redesign services and improving the lives of everyone who live or work in our cities.

The UK Government is empowering cities to unleash their growth potential. I think it is time for our cities to strike out and be bolder, faster and more innovative in achieving their growth aims. Stormont should trust our city leaders to get on with the job.

Andrew Webb is managing director of Webb Advisory

Belfast Telegraph

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