I am the kind of person who would rather share a train carriage with an unclaimed bag than raise the alarm and risk looking silly - I would probably hesitate even if I knew it contained a bomb. But if it is possible to be smugly mortified, that’s how I felt a few days ago.
Over dinner I was telling a Scottish friend about a programme I am making for Radio 4 on city regions and economic strategy. As I was describing the importance of cities collaborating with their suburbs he said ‘oh yes, I read a really good blog post about that recently’. As we waited for our drinks a quick Google search revealed the source of the blog: Jonathan Schifferes a researcher at….you’ve guessed it the RSA! I blushed with chagrin and pride.
The point eloquently made by Jonathan, to be echoed in my programme when it is broadcast in September, concerns the importance of political geography to the economic fortunes of places. In large part, cities like Denver and Ohio have been successful because they achieved economic cooperation across the wider metropolitan area; while Detroit failed because – even though the benighted city is surrounded by quite economically dynamic districts – no such co-operation emerged.
Sub-regional collaboration is important, and increasingly so, for two reasons:
Economic model - as local leaders see the importance of developing productive economies able to sell to the world, it is vital to work at the most relevant geographical scale; not the city boundaries but the wider travel to work area. Furthermore, infrastructure projects – particularly transport related ones – will tend to need resources in terms of land, finance and public support which again cross city boundaries
Funding base - often, and this was certainly the case with Denver and Detroit – the more affluent citizens live in the suburbs so the city alone can suffer from a declining tax base. As budgets are squeezed it is important to share the burden of funding across all those who benefit. For example, when Denver’s arts facilities were running out of money, the city and suburbs, seeing that audiences came from across the region, backed a region wide sales tax for the arts.
These insights, plus the Coalition’s commitment to Local Enterprises Partnerships (which generally have city region boundaries) and to localising the business rate is leading to a significant move towards city regions being created voluntarily. The Greater Manchester Combined Authority of ten councils is leading the way and city region combinations are now being actively pursued in Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool and the North East. After the abolition of Metropolitan Counties in the 1980s and of Regional Development Agencies a couple of years ago, a new tier of economically focussed local government is emerging spontaneously - and the early signs are that the collaboration is the better for having been chosen.
But not everywhere seems to be grasping the challenge.
After revealing my ignorance about my own organisation, my Scottish friend grabbed a napkin and drew me a map. It was of Glasgow, the UK city which comes bottom of many indicators of economic and social wellbeing and which has by all accounts suffered substandard political leadership for many decades (something which partly reflects its status as a Labour fiefdom). Apparently, if a cartographer was tasked with drawing a boundary which included all the most disadvantaged environs of Glasgow, but which excluded all the most affluent ones they could hardly have drawn one that meets the criteria better than that which exists.
I am not close enough to Scottish affairs to know whether the dysfunctionality of Glasgow’s boundaries is being discussed, nor whether there are serious attempts to create stronger collaboration across the wider economic area. My sense from my last visit north of the border is that almost every calorie of political energy is going into the independence debate. But if I were a Glaswegian, I suspect I would think the independence of my country mattered less to my city’s prospects than the capacity of local leaders to work together on a long term city region economic strategy.
A starting point for such a strategy would be an assessment of existing assets. Which reminds me, I must go and find Jonathan Schifferer.