Bruce Katz is a brilliant American thinker on the future of metro cities. It was a privilege to hear him speak this month in Manchester Town Hall alongside Richard Leese, the architect of our own metro city in Greater Manchester.
Both men see the driver for the American and UK economies being in metro cities in the years to come. That certainly chimes with current government policy here where regional structures have been destroyed in favour of cities and local enterprise partnerships.
I have always thought the abolition of Yorkshire Forward and the North West Development Agency was a mistake and one of the reasons for that is that the policy of concentrating on boosting our cities leaves places like Keighley, Halifax, Burnley, and Skelmersdale out in the cold.
Urbanists will tell you that prosperity will eventually radiate out as the economy improves. I doubt it. The truth is more likely to align with the views of Brian Robson. He’s a distinguished professor and has written widely on urban policy. After hearing our American lecturer he told me bluntly that the cities were the future and people from the outlying Lancashire and Yorkshire towns would just have to travel into the metropolises of Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool to get work.
I don’t think Brian, who is a very civilised man is completely serious and our rural and semi rural towns will battle on with their efforts to attract specialised jobs and employers who see price advantages in setting up away from the conurbations. However it will be a battle. I was in Bolton recently and admire its magnificent Town Hall and theatre. But when you’ve said that, you’ve said it all. On this particular Saturday teatime the shops were shuttering up and it was impossible to find a decent restaurant. The danger of the current policy is that everything is gravitating to the big cities and out of town shopping malls, leaving our town centres devastated.
So as the future is the cities for the time being we had better to the analysis of Bruce Katz and Richard Leese. Americans are very alienated from their central government right now. Washington is almost paralysed as the Democrats and Tea Party Republicans fight themselves to a standstill. Katz quoted one senator who said “It comes to something when the biggest threat to the US government is the US Congress!”
According to Katz, into this void come the cities driving growth, education and infrastructure with central government left with social security, defence and regulatory functions. His model is North East Ohio, an area embracing Cleveland, Akron, Youngstown and Caton. He believes the critical mass of urban areas is essential to turning round communities where traditional industries have gone.
Richard Leese’s equivalent is the Combined Authority (CA) of Greater Manchester, a model soon to be followed on Merseyside and in West Yorkshire. He claimed the CA had given the area scale to embark on projects like Airport City and the Ethiad Campus in east Manchester. All that was needed, claimed Sir Richard, was for the government to allow real devolution.
The power of Katz and Leese arguments can’t be denied but the rest of the North has to be looked after too.
Its that time in the parliamentary cycle when MPs have to make up their minds about whether they want to vacate their seats ahead of the General Election.
Shaun Woodward’s decision to quit as MP for St Helens South and Whiston brings back memories of the controversial way he was “parachuted” into the seat by the New Labour machine in 2001 after defecting from the Tories. A mischievous thought enters my head that we could see St Helens council leader Barry Grunewald going for the selection against Marie Rimmer who lost the leadership to him earlier this year.
Jack Straw, at the age of 67, has decided to stand down so Blackburn will be getting a new MP for only the third time since 1945. The seat would appropriately be represented by a member of the Asian community.
So would Manchester Gorton, but I am told that 83 year old Sir Gerald Kaufman has indicated to wants to stand again. He would be nearly ninety at the end of the next parliament. Perhaps he wants to be Father of the House. The problem is that Michael Meacher (Oldham West) also entered the Commons in 1970.
Tory vacancies will be few and far between in the North West this time, but Lorraine Fulbrook is standing down in South Ribble and in Ribble Valley there is the tricky issue of Nigel Evans. Currently sitting as an Independent pending his trial on sex charges, Evans tells me he is confident of being found not guilty and then standing as Conservative candidate at the next election.