Big cities join forces to tell David Cameron they want more freedom

Newcastle City Council joins other major cities to argue they could provide a massive boost to the nation's economy

City leaders from across Britain, including Newcastle’s Nick Forbes, second from right, with Prime
Minister David Cameron and Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin as the petition backing High Speed 2 is handed yesterday
City leaders from across Britain, including Newcastle’s Nick Forbes, second from right, with Prime Minister David Cameron and Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin as the petition backing High Speed 2 is handed yesterday

The leaders of England’s great cities laid down an ultimatum to Whitehall last night - pledging to make Britain richer, healthier and fairer if they are freed from London’s control.

Newcastle has joined forces with seven other major cities to issue a nine-point plan designed to let big cities off the leash.

Proposals include putting cities in charge of job creation, allowing them to set up their own energy firms to keep fuel bills down and letting them levy their own income tax or sales tax, with the cash used to improve services such as transport or health.

And they called for a written constitution setting out the roles and responsibilities of big cities and ordering Government ministers to stop interfering. Newcastle City Council leader Nick Forbes joined council leaders and mayors from Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham and Sheffield to take their plan directly to David Cameron.

They met the Prime Minister in 10 Downing Street, where they also highlighted the importance of pressing ahead with the planned North-South rail line known as HS2.

And the nine-point “prospectus” was officially launched at a summit in London attended by Cities Minister Greg Clark and Labour’s Shadow Infrastructure Minister Lord Adonis.

City leaders argue that their role has been undermined by decades of centralisation - which has damaged the entire country, because the cities lost their role as economic powerhouses and instead became poorer than the nation as a whole.

If the big cities and their surrounding urban areas were as successful economically as the national average, Britain’s economy would expand by £1.3bn, they say.

Speaking at the London summit, Coun Forbes said: “In the core cities, we know from our own communities the devastating effects of long-term unemployment. A complex mix of barriers to opportunity: poor health, poor housing, poor skills.

“Insecurity in work. Inequality in access to work. 1.3m people out of work in our core cities, costing £5.7bn in welfare benefits.

“These challenges require local solutions, tailored to the needs of individuals and their communities.”

City leaders hope that by forming a united front, known as the Core Cities group, they will ensure their demands are heard.

They have also formed an alliance with Edinburgh and Glasgow, who are campaigning for the high speed rail line to be extended into Scotland, and with London Mayor Boris Johnson, who is backing many of their demands.

The prospectus includes calls for cities to take over responsibility for getting unemployed people into work.

They would take over responsibility for the Government’s “work programme”, which is meant to provide suitable advice and training for unemployed people but has been widely criticised.

They would also become responsible for providing advice and support for businesses.

Each city would create a centre offering advice, help acquiring funding and access to loans from a regional bank.

Cities would also take control of housing policy, deciding how money earmarked by the Government for new social housing was spent locally, and tax breaks would be introduced to encourage private sector home building.

Existing short-term funding arrangements for transport would be ended. Instead of receiving sporadic grants from Government for specific schemes, councils would be allocated pots of money over a 10-year period to be spent according to local needs.

Taxation would be reformed to give cities the power to raise more money themselves. They would take over business rates, have the power to levy new small taxes such as a tax on hotel rooms, and would “explore other taxes having a local element”, such as a local income tax or sales tax.

Cities would set up their own energy companies, to keep bills down, and cut any future risk of blackouts.

They would work with Government and the European Union to provide super-fast broadband across every city.

More public services would be delivered by councils, allowing them to ensure different services worked more closely together. In particular, health and social care would be integrated to provide better and cheaper care for the elderly population.

And the cities want a new constitution setting out the respective roles of councils and central Government - and they are even asking for a change to Parliament’s rules “so ministers can’t constantly question the decisions of local politicians without good reason”.

Cities Minister Greg Clark said: “I’m delighted that the core cities are being bold and ambitious in their proposals to generate jobs and growth.

“The proposals they make will have to be seriously considered.”

Ministers were soon to begin negotiations with major cities over their bids for a share of a £2bn-a-year fund called the Local Growth Fund, he said.

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