Government needs to be in it for the long term when it comes to investing in people and places.
History tells us that policy can make a difference. But lack of investment in our cities today means the government is likely to face an even bigger bill in the future.
Cities Outlook 1901 explores how and why urban Britain has evolved over the long-term to highlight what policy makers can do now to improve the prospects of cities and individuals in the future.
Skills are the single most important factor determining the long run success of cities.
Seven out of eight of the best performing cities today had above average skills levels in 1901; while eight out of ten cities with the most vulnerable economies in 2012 were in the bottom 20 cities for skills levels in 1901.
City histories show how access to skills enabled people and businesses to adapt to the changing economy during the early part of the 20th century. Small, highly skilled metal-working firms in Birmingham were able to rapidly respond to the demands of the emerging automotive sector. Preston and Swindon offered ideal locations for high-tech firms who needed access to high skilled engineers.
Preston and Swindon are also examples of cities that have bucked wider trends associated with the decline of traditional manufacturing centres. The development of the two cities demonstrate how strengths can be positively built on if they are supported with the right investment and strong leadership.
Swindon managed to transform its economic fortunes in the midst of the decline of its rail industry by supporting the development of its high tech industries.
The combination of the city’s improved connectivity resulting from the recently completed M4, affordable business premises and a clear marketing strategy brought in some big wins for the city.
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The city’s business base continued to expand with inward investment from the likes of Allied Dunbar and Nationwide Building Society when many other former industrial cities were declining.
Preston followed a very different path from its neighbouring mill towns over the course of the 20th century. As its traditional industry began to decline the city managed to reinvent itself as a regional service centre by building on its slightly more diverse economy.
Its growth was given an additional spur when new road network provided as part of the abandoned 1970s Central Lancashire New Town project facilitated the growth of business parks and attracted new firms to the city.
These different stories highlight that there’s certainly no magic bullet when it comes to economic development. But targeted investment can make a difference – particularly in the long run. Yet the sad fact is the UK lags well behind other international economies when it comes to investment in skills and transport and its heavily centralised state means cities have limited power to change things.
Short-term cuts to investment in our cities are likely to stifle the UK’s recovery. The long term implications for people and business mean that failure to invest now will leave the country paying for decades.