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UrbanTide where fortunate enough to attend the Northern Futures Summit, in Leeds at the start of November. For our highlights of the day please see our 'Storify' here.

The purpose of this blog however is to investigate, from a 'Smart Cities' angle, a document that was provided to all attendees in their welcome pack by 'Centre for Cities'.

Entitled, 'A Manifesto for a More Prosperous Britain', a 21 page booklet was supplied which lay forth the influential think tanks proposition for a more efficient, sustainable and prosperous United Kingdom, the central tenant being a 'Cities and Prosperity Act' enshrining their recommendations.

There is a clear issue that may require legislation to resolve i.e. the way in which are cities are run does need to be drastically overhauled. As professor Michael Parkinson put it in the summit itself

"Europe's cities drag their economies up, ours drag them down'. 

An accompanying leaflet from Centre for Cities stipulating the 2014 Outlook for Cities was also helpful in highlighting the need for immediate and effective change.

For example, in the UK Government grants equate to 83% of the money cities have available to spend, meaning they have have little control over what they get and how they spend it. The OECD average is 45% which means cities take the lead in this area in most other countries around the world. This is the keystone statistic in terms of what is driving this attitude for change and, very crudely from our perspective, results in less of a chance that 'Smart City' pilots will get the go ahead on a city to city basis.

What does the act recommend? 

The proposed act makes 5 key recommendations;

  1.  The primary objective of act is to lay down effective leadership and governance structure, similar to that of London. These structures have to be strong enough to effect significant economic change. The formation of combined authorities and mayors etc. is viewed as one way of doing this but would need to be totally democratic. This will give cities the authority and framework to drive growth by working with businesses and public sector. 
  2. The proposed act also makes provisions to ensure better resourced cities. Cities need to stimulate economic growth but currently don’t have the resources. By suggesting more tax raising powers and more control over how money is spent, Centre for Cities believe their proposal will lead to thriving national economy and more efficient expenditure of public money.
  3. Skills was a consistently mentioned issue at the summit itself and the proposed act seeks to provide for better skilled cities that can create more and better jobs for residents. The available material reveals that current policy is not aligned with labour market. In short giving cities control here would allow for local authorities to work with local business and citizens to create jobs that suit those who live and work in a particular place. The same principle can also be applied to educational institutions and should see some progress made on the London 'brain drain' problem the North experience.
  4. Housing represents another area that proposed legislation seeks to address. Currently, cities lack tools to address housing shortage. The 'Cities and Prosperity Act' suggests harnessing cities with the tools to respond to local housing needs. Houses need to be delivered where demand is highest to support growth and by decentralising authority here, it will allow a more strategic approach.
  5. Transport is another area of focus for the proposed act. A constantly contentious issue - all over the UK, city regions lack transport powers to design, coordinate and deliver the transport system to support jobs and connect people to places. Centre for Cities suggest giving cities long term and coordinated funding to invest in transport for city regions and surrounding areas. The aim being to make people more connected as well as opening up jobs and business opportunities by linking homes work and leisure.

What is very striking about these areas of focus is the similarity between decentralisation discussion and smart cities discourse. Even more specifically there are clear similarities between some of the suggestions here around leadership, governance and stakeholder engagement and those that comprise the ideals in the Smart Cities  standard PAS 181 - see our blog on the piece here.

Is it likely to happen?

In short the answer is yes. The specific act proposed may not be passed but increased devolution already has significant cross party support and the first 'deal' has already been done. Chancellor George Osborne confirmed in November 2014 that Greater Manchester is to get its own directly-elected mayor - with the region getting £1bn-worth of powers over transport, housing, planning and policing in return. At the summit itself the Deputy Prime Minister pledged to have similar deals for Leeds and Sheffield before Christmas (although a lack of an elected mayor provision is holding negotiations up somewhat).

So what does this mean for Smart Cities?

Well, all political ideology aside - devolving greater autonomy to cities is exactly what is needed to optimise and accelerate the burgeoning 'Smart Cities' movement in the UK. It will allow local authorities to better tailor solutions to those people who live and work specifically in that city. It defeats the ill fitting blanket proposals that emanate from Whitehall and could overcome the problem of inefficient homogenisation of public services.

This worry of homogenisation also extends to 'Smart Cities' i.e. technology and practicality eliminating all character and identity within an urban area. However when cities have the power, they can make policy which invites greater and more pertinent stakeholder engagement and citizen involvement. This could allow for city specific innovations that come to define the place as much as any other historical influence. Give cities the power and all those who oversee, live and work there can customise to make their city smart whilst reinforcing historical and contemporary identity.

Furthermore, giving more power to cities is perhaps the best way of deriving the benefits from increased competition, both domestically and globally. By giving cities an unprecedented amount of onus they will have no choice but to identify and encourage explorations of collaboration, innovation, citizen centric focuses, partnership and efficiency to justify the decentralisation

The above all being crucial components in successful 'Smart City' projects. 

Decentralisation is exactly what is needed to kick start 'Smart Cities' in the UK and finally catch up with the progress being made in this area around the globe. Whilst 'Smart Cities' is clearly not the primary objective of such a political shake up, the benefits for this blossoming movement are there for all to see. Any move that necessitates increased innovation, collaboration, leadership and engagement will be hugely welcomed by the industry. It is not over the top to declare that 'Smart Cities' could act as a conduit for more prosperous cities in the UK, especially if decisions are being taken and solutions being created at the most appropriate level - locally.

 

 

 

 

 

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