Unlocking the potential of the UK’s cities

Three years on from the first Covid lockdown, cities are in economic crisis and councils are struggling to cope. But as Andrew Travers of Inner Circle Consulting explains, we can deliver good growth, jobs and greener futures with a new blueprint for local government.

It’s clear that fresh ideas are needed to address yawning inequalities between regions, currently being exacerbated by a cost-of-living crisis and a massive real-terms cut in central government funding. It’s also clear that our beleaguered public sector is facing an existential crisis as demand for services soars. Urgent support is needed to rewrite the blueprint for local government for the 21st century. So Inner Circle Consulting is working on a plan for both.

Together with the Royal Society of Arts and Core Cities, as part of the UK Urban Futures Commission, we’re meeting council leaders and metro mayors, commissioners and finance groups, and undertaking extensive research, city visits and roundtables with the public and other stakeholders, to find the answers to three key questions:

  • What’s the role and function of cities in delivering a modern economy?
  • What’s our vision for cities in the future?
  • What are the biggest challenges we need to solve to reach that vision?

The key principles of the work are to create practical and actionable plans, which bring fresh perspectives. These plans will be systemic, long-term, and designed through an open and iterative approach to building evidence and testing solutions.

White man in glasses
Andrew Travers, Director at Inner Circle Consulting

Investment is vital to change people’s lives through local economic growth

But sometimes local government struggles to maintain the confidence it needs when it’s focused on short-term risks rather than long-term benefits. We want to boost that confidence. Because we know that local government’s track record shows it can deliver when the bigger picture is volatile. Look at how councils rose to the challenge of austerity and, indeed, of Covid.

They rolled out vaccines and delivered food. They supported local businesses and high streets during the economic recovery. They’ve been continually reinventing themselves through a decade of austerity. And now they’re delivering a new wave of council housebuilding. It’s clear councils are collaborating and innovating at local and regional levels.

The next wave will need further devolution, for example through the Greater Manchester and West Midlands trailblazer deals, but fundamentally requires investment through local and regional partnerships working with the private sector. In this way, the Core Cities and London can drive low-carbon growth and tackle inequality within and between places.

Creating a strong and stable platform for long-term investment

So the work of the Commission is supported by a Finance Advisory Group whose work is based on the premise that very significant investment is required for UK cities to fulfil their potential, that the UK state is severely limited in the funding it can provide, and that, therefore, the bulk of investment must come from the private sector.

So, as part of our investigation, we’ll be looking very closely at the kind of investment portfolios and funding required to:

  • support public service delivery
  • provide essential physical and digital infrastructure to support growth
  • provide housing appropriate for a growing workforce
  • deliver assets to support the development of higher-value economic sectors.

Some resources will come from existing assets and public-sector investment. But we know success will also depend on large-scale private sector investment from banks, insurance funds, pension funds, private equity, foreign direct investment and sovereign wealth funds.

We’re also working with developers, investors and funders to understand the delivery structures needed and the blockages which inhibit the flow of funds to investable propositions.

To make sure a strong and stable platform is in place for long-term investment, our work will also examine the kind of governance, leadership and capacity that each city and city region needs to create. We’re looking for key ideas, ingredients and processes that can bring together political and business leaders with other stakeholders to set a vision, strategy and narrative for the place.

The resources for delivering change have been denuded through austerity, so we want to support leaders to create the structures and processes that will make investment happen in their areas. We’re particularly looking for strategies that balance economic growth with the move towards net zero, and the drive to reduce inequality within, as well as between, places.

A blueprint to effect and fund change in the UK’s cities

The Commission will report in the autumn of 2023 with a blueprint to effect and fund change in the UK’s cities. The blueprint will both support the development of policy programmes for the government and opposition parties, and enable individual cities to develop and deliver actions plans for the future.

Local government can help us understand what good growth looks like – visible, practical and benefitting everyone locally in their daily lives – and, by delivering it, can secure financial sustainability. So it’s vital we help cities, towns, councils, combined authorities, unitaries and all the vital network of the UK’s public sector to use its resources, assets and partnerships to make this happen.

We can only do this if we mobilise a movement of people who have the skills, background and creativity to help make this happen. So please get in touch if you’d like to be part of this project.

Andrew Travers is a director of Inner Circle Consulting and a former chief executive of LB Lambeth.  If you’d like to be part of the UK Urban Futures Commission please get in touch with contact@innercircleconsulting.co.uk.