A vision for cities

Transcript of the speech as delivered. Tomorrow, I am off to see how the great city of Birmingham is creating jobs, attracting businesses…

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Rt Hon Lord Pickles

Transcript of the speech as delivered.

Tomorrow, I am off to see how the great city of Birmingham is creating jobs, attracting businesses and promoting growth.

People say that what happens in Birmingham affects the whole West Midlands.

I don’t think so - no what happens in Birmingham affects the whole world.

Birmingham is a world city as important as Boston or Barcelona.

It is a global player, but one playing with its hands tied behind its back.

It was not always so.

Once Joseph Chamberlain ran Birmingham.

That giant city leader.

Introduced primary education.

Cleaned up the water supply.

Built libraries, schools, and museums.

It was the same in Manchester. The same in Leeds And the same in my old stomping ground of Bradford.

Visit one of those Victorian city halls and you can feel a citadel to civic pride, civic duty and independence.

No waiting for approval from Parliament - much less an instruction manual.

They knew what they wanted to do - but they also had the powers and just got on with it.

It’s no surprise that as powers have been leeched from local government, English cities have declined and stagnated.

The old initiative, the old dynamism, the spirit of activism has all been snatched away.

Much of the energy of modern city leadership is drained away dealing with TLAs - three letter acronyms.


Can you imagine Joseph Chamberlain sitting meekly filling in forms so that some remote civil servant could measure his performance?

Everything that this Government is about is about putting power back where it belongs in City, County and Town Halls.

Back in the hands of local leaders - to have a real ownership over the issues which matter. Housing. Planning. Health and public services.

I am not advocating some kind of Back to the Future municipal power.

We need to go even further - “Chamberlain plus” by also empowering communities and individuals. Enabling them to solve their own problems. Offering a reason to get involved and make a difference to civic life.

We are giving cities back their political freedom - their ability to decide for themselves what they want.

So, for example, all councils will now have this power of general competence - the ability to do what ever they want in the interests of local people.

Major cities can go even further and decide for themselves whether they want to go for the leadership of a Mayor.

There is a reason why almost every major city in the world has a strong and powerful executive leader.

What works for Chicago could work for Coventry. What works for Lisbon could work for Leicester.

We’re also forging a new democratic settlement for London.

So that the Mayor has the powers to match his international profile.

And so that Londoners have real influence over the decisions which affect their lives.

Like regeneration, housing investment and the Olympic legacy.

These decisions are being wrested away from quangos and bureaucrats and put back where they belong - in the hands of Londoners.

But as well as political autonomy, cities have also got to have the economic freedom to go with it.

What we’ve had in recent decades is completely unstable and unbalanced economic growth.

Some places have been left far behind - with the public sector picking up the slack; further unbalancing the local economy away from the enterprise that should be its life blood.

Cities are sometimes described as the engine of economic growth, all governments recognise that.

In furtherance of that belief, over the past decade or so, government’s well intentioned but unsteady hand has systematically poured sugar into that engine - stifling it of life.

You can’t create jobs around the country by coming up with a masterplan from Whitehall.

You can’t support businesses by drawing artificial lines on a map and calling them ‘regions’.

So we are putting the decisions on growth in the hands of the people who know and understand their own natural economic area - through local enterprise partnerships.

Local business leaders alongside local elected officials, coming together in their own ways to to devise their own solutions - without being drowned in guidance and paperwork.

The people of Birmingham, Cambridge or Bristol should be deciding what their economic future looks like - based on their industries, circumstances and strengths.

It has been encouraging to see the way that cities have responded to this opportunity. Like Sheffield - no longer forced into the box marked “Yorkshire and the Humber” and having to follow instructions from Leeds.

It is now working in partnership across a much more natural economic area, bringing in parts of Derbyshire and the National Park, as well as private businesses.

We are looking at three levers for growth.

First, partnerships can bid for a share of the billion and a half pound growth fund - helping to create private sector jobs and attract businesses investment.

Second, there is the new homes bonus for councils who want to support local families and attract new workers.

It will make sure that local people are rewarded, not penalised, for development in their area.

And third, there are the ideas we have for reforming business rates.

It seems crazy to me that English councils have no financial incentives to invest in economic growth.

We are examining ways to give authorities a real financial incentive to encourage business and a spirit of enterprise.

But we’re already announced plans to let councils borrow against future business rates.

And we are now looking at much more radical options - keeping more of the proceeds and moving towards a much greater degree of self financing.

But perhaps one of the biggest blockades to growth over recent decades has been the planning system.

Well, we call it the planning system.

We haven’t had proper planning in this country for decades.

Instead we just had development control.

We’ve ended up with a confrontational system, founded on mistrust and a sense of powerlessness.

Which dreamed up targets instead of making sure that homes got built.

The new planning system is predicated on encouraging growth - there will be a powerful presumption in favour of stainable development.

Planning will be plan led rather than the current default setting of appeal on application.

We are borrowing from Germany and elsewhere with our emphasis on neighbourhood planning.

Some people mistakenly think this is a policy which has been designed for rural villages.

No. Neighbourhood planning is equally applicable to the urban setting.

The whole point about localism is that it enables any community, where-ever it is, whatever its circumstances, to make its own choices for growth.

The building blocks of great cities are strong and cohesive neighbourhoods - where people have a strong sense of belonging and pride.

Those neighbourhoods should be able to come together and say, this is what we want our community to look like in five, ten, twenty years time.

Far from being a NIMBY’s charter - this is a way of giving people a reason to say ‘yes’ to growth.

Confident that this is their neighbourhood. Their city. And their choices about their future.

Through localism, I believe that we can unleash the potential which we all believe is latent in our cities.

We can restore their political autonomy, their economic freedom, and their financial independence.

If we want our cities to be able to compete on the global stage, then we have to start locally.

There used to be a saying: what Manchester does today, the world does tomorrow.

Every single city should aspire to replacing Manchester in that sentence.

There are few limits to their new powers.

There should be no limits to their ambition.

Published 19 January 2011