Government must not overlook economic challenges facing UK ‘fast growth cities’ like Swindon

By Anita Jaynes on March 8, 2016

A new report by the think tank Centre for Cities calls for greater Government focus on addressing the economic challenges facing some of the UK’s fastest-growing and strongest-performing cities like Swindon.

Representatives of the five cities, which also includes Cambridge, Oxford, Milton Keynes and Norwich, gathered together today (March 8) in the House of Commons to drive the point home to Government.

Swindon, although technically not designated a city, is one of the five economically vibrant powerhouses recognised as vital to the national economy, who have got together as a consortium called the Fast Growth Cities group to push their case.

The independent report, Fast Growth Cities: the opportunities and challenges ahead’, was officially launched today in association with the group and included cross-party representatives from Swindon Council as well as South Swindon MP Robert Buckland speaking on behalf of the town.

The report shows that these cities are playing an increasingly important role in the national economy, with all five places enjoying higher productivity levels than bigger cities such as Manchester and Birmingham. They also have higher than average levels of employment and business start-ups, and are among the fastest growing places in terms of population.

Before the launch event Swindon Council leader David Renard said: “There’s been concern amongst cities outside London that a lot of attention has been given to urban areas in the north of England and the large counties. The five cities have come together to demonstrate that they make a considerable impact on the British economy, a contribution that central government should both recognise and encourage with greater investment.

“I’m pleased Robert Buckland MP is supporting our campaign by speaking out for the five cities at the launch in the House of Commons. We’re making a statement of intent that the message from our cities must be listened to and supports our vision for Swindon.”

Cllr Junab Ali, deputy leader of the Labour opposition on Swindon Council added: “We’re taking a cross party approach to promoting Swindon as one of the five major growth areas in Britain. The statistics revealed by the Centre for Cities shows that the five Fast Growth Cities have high productivity levels than big cities like Manchester and Birmingham, and they also have higher than average levels of employment and business start-ups, as well as being among the fastest growing places in terms of population.

“However government has to help us overcome the problems this creates like lack of housing, creaking infrastructure and the need to train local people to meet skill shortages.”

Fast-growth-cities-infographic

However, the report warns that these cities are facing a number of significant economic challenges which threaten to undermine their continuing economic success in the years to come, including:

  • Housing – this is an increasing problem for the Fast Growth Cities, with a lack of new homes leading to higher housing prices and low affordability. Oxford and Cambridge, for example, are the first and third least affordable cities in the UK respectively, which is proving a major barrier to recruiting and retaining workers in those places. Allowing these cities the freedom to borrow through the Housing Revenue Account would enable them to provide more of the affordable housing they need.
  • Increasing transport congestion – the Fast Growth Cities all attract large numbers of workers from surrounding areas, resulting in significant traffic congestion problems. The report warns that Government funding for transport infrastructure is too short term to enable the Fast Growth Cities to address this issue, and calls for longer-term funding commitments (such as those available to Manchester and Sheffield)
  • Skills gaps – all the Fast Growth Cities are affected by skill shortages to some degree, especially in terms of recruiting workers with the right skill-sets for the innovative industries which these places are home to. Swindon, Milton Keynes and Norwich, for example, all have a lower than average proportion of residents with level 4 qualifications (equivalent to a degree) or higher.

The report calls for greater Government recognition of the opportunities and challenges facing these cities, alongside focused policies to help them address these issues, as part of its ongoing devolution plans.

Commenting on the findings, Alexandra Jones, Chief Executive of Centre for Cities said: “The Government’s devolution agenda has understandably focused on boosting growth in some of the UK’s biggest city-economies, many of which are punching below their weight economically. However, for the Government to realise its ambitions of building a more productive and higher-wage economy across the country, it’s crucial that it does not overlook the challenges facing the Fast Growth Cities group, which are among the most economically vibrant and innovative places in the UK.

“For these cities to continue to grow, it’s vital that they receive the kind of tailored policy support the Government is putting in place for cities like Greater Manchester and Sheffield. It’s also important that any devolution deals involving the ‘Fast Growth’ cities respond to the specific obstacles and opportunities they face. If they are included in wider regional deals, those agreements should retain a strong urban focus, to make the most of the economic characteristics and strengths of these cities. This should be a key consideration for the Government as it extends its devolution agenda in the coming years.”