New city deals needed to fuel economy post Covid-19

The government needs to deliver “new city deals” in the recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic in order to fuel economic prosperity and sustainability across the UK, the latest Voice of Authority webinar has heard.

Leading figures from the UK’s core cities, the Northern Powerhouse Partnership and Midlands Connect were in conversation webinar partner Mott MacDonald on the best ways for the country to emerge from the coronavirus crisis.

Cllr James Lewis, deputy leader of Leeds City Council, said the transfer of power from Whitehall will help regions to prosper, while Cllr Sam Webster, portfolio holder for finance, growth and the city centre at Nottingham City Council, called for “new city deals” from central government.

“We had successful city deals in the past, we need to reopen the conversations with government on all of the core cities, not only those that have devolution deals”, Webster told the webinar.

“We do need a new deal going forward to come out of the coronavirus crisis. What started as a public health crisis could quickly become, and looks as if it is becoming an economic crisis.

“The government needs to respond to that challenge with core cities in particular as the drivers of the economy in the country.”

Lewis agreed, saying he hopes West Yorkshire will achieve a level of devolution next year and the creation of a combined authority and metro mayor.

“Devolution is really important for us, it is a method we see for getting a long-term financial commitment to delivering improved infrastructure”, he said.

“We see it as a way to be actually able to direct the resource of both national government and local government on the skills agenda in a really targeted way to West Yorkshire.

“Actually having the freedoms that come with devolution, we would be able to set a plan and programme for the years ahead and get on with it, not constantly going back and forwards to London to see government ministers and officials for what are relatively small projects and funding projects.”

Lewis added that an “unspoken” issue at the moment is how money coming back into the UK after Brexit is redistributed to different parts of the UK.

Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, told viewers a centralised “top-down” approach to tackling coronavirus has been exposed as flawed and supports the case for decentralisation of power.

“The reality is that local government needs to remain and be invested in as well as the strategic tier at city region level and at the level say of a Cumbria, places like the north bank of the Humber, Cheshire, or Warrington that also aspired to devolution”, he said.

“If you hollow out the capacity of local government which in the end is the delivery engine for most of the projects you want to do, even if you have more capacity to think at the level of city region and deal with those wider issues, you lose the opportunities to respond to them.”

He added that trusting regional bodies “to take more responsibility” will lead to more equality and productivity.

The webinar looked at how the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are being used to help the British economy get back on its feet post-pandemic.

Luke Strickland, environment and sustainability lead for Mott MacDonald, said there is a risk in the coronavirus recovery of a “high carbon rebound” but asserted that there is a chance to boost the environmental cause instead.

“We are going to be spending big bucks in the recovery from Covid”, he said. “If we are smart in that we can decarbonise at the same time, we can create green jobs and contribute to the levelling up agenda.”

Maria Machancoses, director of Midlands Connect, agreed that “levelling up” should remain an important factor as the economy recovers, and called for early investment in sustainable transport to reap the benefits in the future.

“There is a risk we will be missing a future opportunity to get excited about making the right choice, the right decision, and still choosing public transport as the first choice when it comes to it”, she said.

“History has shown after major crises globally the demand comes back, people are eager to connect, to new places, to new people and to make new acquaintances.

“I’m confident that people will still rely and will depend, and will require and will expect, a much improve public transport network and they will want that to be the most sustainable network that there is.”

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