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City-to-city Diplomacy

Volume 753: debated on Wednesday 26 March 2014

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the case for city-to-city diplomacy in Europe as a means for providing better practice.

My Lords, in my remarks today I would like to connect three themes. The first is the nature and purpose of city-to-city diplomacy. The second is how it can assist democracy and stability in Europe. The third is the ways in which the United Kingdom and Her Majesty’s Government might now take a timely lead in supporting and advancing it. In some respects this subject is quite new. That apart, its issues are, I think, consensual and cross-party. I am grateful to all colleagues who are speaking today and I look forward a great deal to their contributions and guidance.

At first sight, city-to-city diplomacy appears to be no different from twinning cities. After the Second World War the latter development was most successful. In different countries it established links between population centres recently caught up in Europe’s fighting and conflict. Such twinnings were able to express and build up good will—a very important and necessary achievement. Yet the links did not go much further than that. Nor did they need to do so. Nevertheless, for the same cities the past 20 years have provided a wider opportunity, not least as a result of the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, as well as through Europe’s current affiliation of states: 28 within that of the European Union and 47 within that of the Council of Europe. Thus, to the advantage of national and international democracy, this prospect is to evolve good practice and to do so through joint programmes and initiatives embarked upon by cities at their local levels.

Some programmes may be analytical, identifying potential needs, gaps in the delivery of services or weaknesses in economic growth and so on; some may be proactive, between cities implementing business, trade and tourism or education and culture exchanges; while others might set out to enhance the methods of local government, the levels of citizen participation and the well-being of civic communities.

Clearly all those endeavours benefit cities, their member states and Europe alike. For the advantages are both internal and external. City-to-city programmes can address cross-border issues and other aspects of conflict prevention, thus assisting the work of NGOs and international organisations. Within their own European states the local and national connections are fairly obvious. For to the extent that locally city-to-city diplomacy evolves good practice of any kind, it does so nationally as well. Equally, the strength of local democracy which it may inspire and engender also becomes a greater strength of national and European democracy as a result.

Then there is the current background to local democracy in Europe. This is better than and much different from what it used to be. Diplomacy is no longer the prerogative of officials from national foreign ministries. Increasingly it is advanced through people themselves. There is growing evidence of good results deriving from the absence of formalities and structures. Ever frequently it is demonstrated that economic, community and social progress have become less dependent upon public funding and strategies in the first place and, instead, for their advancement and reinvigoration more reliant upon academia, the private sector and professional bodies.

Against this background, city-to-city diplomacy reduces costs and boosts the local economies concerned. That is particularly so when the focus is upon a variety of associated initiatives rather than only a disparate few. Last month, assisted by the Council of Europe, it was in this context that between Croatia and the United Kingdom just such a project was launched between the cities of Zadar and Dundee.

So the purpose and effect of city-to-city diplomacy is to augment stability and democracy at local, national and European levels together.

When we come to the role of European Governments, and in particular that of Her Majesty’s Government, there are of course some important considerations. As a forceful expedient for local democracy, how should Governments cause working synergies between cities to form and flourish without undermining them through government direction and prescription? No doubt the simple answer is support without interference. Both the European Union and the Council of Europe are now prepared to facilitate projects. However, a great many cities are completely unaware of that, as they also are of the positive scope offered by city-to-city diplomacy in the first place. Does the Minister therefore agree that now is the time for the Government to give much more guidance and encouragement to our own cities? To that end can he say what actions he would take?

Within the United Kingdom the Government have already taken steps to promote more active citizenship. They are also researching policies to improve the well-being of communities. Does my noble friend concur that, as city-to-city diplomacy already advances each of these aims, this is a further reason for the Government to seek to advance it now?

Then there is current government policy on European Union revision, which many of us support. That is to remove competitive burdens and restrictions while completing the single market. However, this structural progress may take a long time. Meanwhile, the development of local democracy in Europe is quite another matter. Does my noble friend believe that this is where city-to-city diplomacy has a key role to play? For if the latter can serve the aims of active citizenship and community well-being at home, then the corollary is that it is also well able to do the same abroad and in Europe. Does my noble friend therefore conclude that this is exactly where the United Kingdom and Her Majesty’s Government can begin to give and be seen to provide a constructive lead to enhance local democracy in Europe?

In summary, city-to-city diplomacy is an extremely effective and attractive intervention. That is all the more so as it is free from the structures and politics of member state Governments. Yet at the same time in Europe it is central and complementary to their priority aims of stability and democracy.

My Lords, the noble Earl raises a challenge not only to the UK Government but to the devolved Administrations with their responsibilities for local authorities. He has been a persuasive advocate of the concept of city-to-city diplomacy and greater public participation, which I have witnessed not only in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe but also in the All-Party Group on Croatia, culminating in the launch of the new city diplomacy project with Zadar and Dundee on 4 February.

The noble Earl tried to distinguish his concept from that of town twinning. I think that he would agree that his concept needs to be sharpened a little. In some way it stems from the concept of twinning, which began, as he said, after the Second World War and which is now, alas, on the ebb. There are a number of reasons for this: there is the austerity—it was perhaps the first cutback made by local authorities; people are travelling more; some have sought to politicise it—Cuba, the West Bank; and there is the amount of councillors going to exotic locations at council tax payers’ expense. However, city-to-city diplomacy clearly builds on the concept of town twinning.

I hope that the noble Earl will say that we need to learn the lessons of what has been good and bad in the existing town twinning system. We should also learn the lessons of what we did immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall, where we sought to buttress local democracy and active citizenry in the countries that were formerly part of either the Soviet Union or the Soviet empire by sending senior local government officers there, be it chief executives, deputy chief executives and so on, or be it in leisure. We should consider what was done well and what lessons we learnt from that.

The noble Earl is well aware, of course, that work in this field is being done by the European Union—Europe for Citizens. This is supported by the Government, rather surprisingly, because it not only deals with commemoration but promotes the concept of Europe itself. Clearly it needs co-ordination with the European Union. The European Union has the money and the Council of Europe perhaps has the resources and the wider membership. Given the precedent of, for example, the partnerships for democracy with Morocco and the Palestinian Authority, there needs to be close co-operation between the narrower European Union and the wider 47-member Council of Europe.

There is a new wave of localism in Europe, which we need to encourage. We need to exchange best practice to learn from the initial Dundee-Zadar precedent. This is clearly good for individual countries, good for local democracy and good for international co-operation. Again, I commend the noble Earl.

My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Dundee for initiating this debate. My experience, which I shall draw on over the next few minutes, relates to Newcastle upon Tyne, where I was a council leader for a number of years. Newcastle has had a number of twinning relationships, particularly in the post-war period, which had, and still have, a very important role because they bring people together. They include sports club exchanges, cultural events, choirs, church group visits, youth groups and school exchanges, as well as the more formal city-led exchanges.

However, the world changes and new possibilities open up. It is not just about twinning, as my noble friend Lord Dundee said. I have concluded that there are three levels to successful city-to-city diplomacy. I mean the wider sub-region by “city”. The three levels are people to people, institution to institution and city leadership to city leadership, which includes business. In this context, I have always been struck by the words of Professor Michael Parkinson, who was founder and former director of the European Institute for Urban Affairs at Liverpool John Moores University. He said:

“A significant feature of successful continental cities is the importance they attach to internationalisation and having city ‘foreign policies’”,

investing time and,

“effort in international networking to raise their profile, gain new allies, expand market share, influence decision-makers and learn new strategies and practices”.

I find that a very useful rationale for developing city-to-city diplomacy.

When we began to rearticulate Newcastle’s approach a few years ago, it was based on those principles. It focused on networks, connections and projects with cities and city regions that have similar characteristics or special links, and where there is economic benefit for business, trade or innovation. The advantages are in sharing learning and best practice, in collective access to funding—particularly European funding, supporting key institutions, such as our universities— and scope for projects that promote language—learning and culture.

In Europe, Newcastle’s twin cities are Gelsenkirchen in Germany, Nancy in France, Groningen in the Netherlands and Bergen in Norway. They have all seen very positive outcomes in recent years—in cultural links, school twinning, shared provision in higher education and in public policy. What can be done by universities? For example, an innovative, dual award programme provides an opportunity to study for a master’s degree in advanced international business management from Newcastle University, and at the same time an MSc in international business and management from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. At undergraduate level for a BSc honours in economics and finance, which includes international financial management, there is an optional study-year abroad at the University of Groningen to provide an international perspective. Those derive from our existing twinning relationship with the city of Groningen.

Finally, I want to draw attention to the potential of honorary consul networks in building bridges between the diplomatic establishment and local businesses and academia. In Newcastle, the honorary consulates of France and Germany have a shared facility in the civic centre. It is the first shared facility in Europe and it is an approved commitment by the city council, too. The honorary consuls help to lead the organisation of the annual North East in Europe conference, now an established and valued event. However, we can extend into new areas. Developing connectivity between the north-east of England and Sweden has been particularly impressive with a consul-led UKTI trip to Sweden for 22 new exporters and several other outward and inward- bound missions, not least in the environmental sector. That is based on a growing new relationship with the city of Malmö and the existence of a Swedish consul in Newcastle. There is enormous potential for the Government to assist and I hope that they will help to spread good practice.

My Lords, I confess that I am somewhat daunted by the Question although I have been asked to talk about the twinning of towns and cities. Therefore, I will not talk about the actual Question but about twinning. Indeed, a noble Lord virtually said that what we are discussing is “twinning plus”.

I have always been fascinated by twinning although I did not know very much about it. When I was asked to speak in this debate, I rang a number of councils. Given the time constraint in this debate, I shall discuss only three of them. These three councils are very different but have in common the fact that their communities decide the way in which they operate their twinning systems with towns in different countries, which I like. I am sure that the noble Earl would have no difficulty answering questions on this topic but anyone who is vaguely Eurosceptic might become more so on hearing his speech. However, I obviously need to do a lot more homework on that.

The twinning system is withering on the vine. The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, gave various reasons for that but did not refer to age. People are getting older. Two local authorities told me that they had built up wonderful relationships over many years. For example, Torquay has a curious relationship with Hamelin, or Hameln as it is known, which you would not expect. Those who have read the Grimms’ stories will know the story about the pied piper and the rats. Torquay has built up a very strong relationship with Hamelin in relation to a number of issues, including life saving, which I thought was very strange. Germans from Hamelin come over every year and discuss life-saving issues with people in Torbay, which has a lifeboat service. When I asked why the citizens of Hamelin would be interested in that, I was told that the Weser is a very deep river. Noble Lords will remember the fate of the rats in the fairy story. The charming thing about twinning is that you learn such interesting and varied facts.

Barnet is an interesting example in this regard. It has a budget for this work, which it does not think is big enough. However, it wishes that it had no budget at all because most of its time is taken up dealing with freedom of information requests, which can be asked by all kinds of cranks and lunatics. This is the phenomenon of the unexpected effects that flow from seemingly perfectly worthy legislation. These requests take up all that authority’s time. People want to know how much of the relevant budget is being spent, and on what. It emerged that the cost of this work for each taxpayer in Barnet was 0.01 of 0.01p. We are in a ridiculous situation in this country. We should not impose on people all kinds of strange democratic things which I hardly understand, although I suppose that I am a democrat. Basically, we have got this right. It just needs to be brought up to date and changed as new pressures emerge.

The other council I contacted was Basingstoke, which is closest to the example given by the noble Earl as it is working on projects as they come up. I have talked to a number of people involved in this issue, including volunteers who were enthusiastic, polite and pleased that I was inquiring about it. Therefore, I put in a request that we leave the situation as it is and forget “twinning plus” for a while.

My Lords, as ever the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, poses an interesting Question. It is very interesting for me because I did not want to take part in the debate today as I do not believe in any of it. However, he was insistent that I did take part and listen to everybody else to see whether I could glean anything, as I certainly have in such a short time already. The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, can always talk about the nature of cities and make that sound terribly interesting for me. We have heard about good practice from the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, from whom I have learnt all about Newcastle upon Tyne. Then I listened to the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, and thought that I should just sit down and say very little because I agree with him.

The question I ask is: what would it achieve? What would its purpose be that would actually be that different from what we already have? That may be looking a bit tired or sad, and as if it ought to be gingered up a bit. It may be just because Russia is dashing all over the place in the Council of Europe area that we are all rather overexcited about looking to and after each other. That may be what it is about a bit as well. The noble Earl has also had wonderful success with his twinning, which has been different and, by the sound of it, rather magnificent.

I have to speak from the background of being a trader. As a trader, I therefore believe in free trade right across the world, wherever possible, without many barriers if we can avoid them. I also believe that cities are mini-worlds. Every city is different and grows in its own way. It may be on a river or on the sea, or up a mountain, but it will have its own things—its own dynamic and energy. It is geography that makes us and, very often, it is trade routes that make cities unique. History also teaches us that the next things we need are talent, technology and tolerance. I would vote for those three things rather than reinventing new ways to bring along democracy or whatever we are calling it, with all sorts of other new civil servants to help us and tell us all how to run our lives.

Each city trades differently and for different reasons. The danger from what is implied here is that the greatest in size and wealth among the 47 countries of the Council of Europe will be talking only to each other. The biggest will talk to the biggest; the best will talk to the best. I cannot see any other way. What we would be looking at is city states. We have seen city states and we know what happens with them. It is hard enough to protect the countries and cities that we already have. Is there to be a war among the cities or a wasteland between them? Are these going to be cities with transport and treasure? I see sieges and armies; I see corruption and exclusion.

So as a trader, I would rather see 1,000 flowers bloom in the 47 countries of the Council of Europe. The noble Earl, Lord Dundee, the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, and the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, are, of course, representatives to that council as delegates, as am I. Indeed, the Minister who will answer in a minute has also been a delegate there. To see this functioning any better than what we have now is going to take all the things that I do not want us to do: more diplomats, more civil servants, more talk, more meetings, more dinners, more cost and less free trade.

Exactly two weeks ago, I was in Denmark chairing a conference of local and regional authorities from around the North Sea. During my two days in Aalborg, I had an opportunity to reflect on the nature of international co-operation at a local level. I was considering how best to raise these points in your Lordships’ House, so I am very grateful that the noble Earl has given me a chance to do so so quickly.

The North Sea Commission was founded in 1989 as a way of allowing local and regional authorities with a North Sea border to come together to discuss areas of common interest and to see whether, by working together, we could arrive at better solutions. I was a councillor in Suffolk when we took the decision to join. I was involved until 2005 and spent much of that time as chair of the heritage, culture and tourism group. Membership was beneficial to Suffolk. It gave us a ready-made pool of the European partners that we needed to join in EU-funded programmes. These ranged from the promotion of local foods and the creation of local business to sustainable tourism and diversification of jobs in Lowestoft, which had been very badly hit by the decline in the fishing industry.

We went on to discover that there are issues and problems common to the North Sea region which cannot always be tackled by individual councils, regions or member states. The North Sea Commission used its influence to bring together fishermen, scientists, environmentalists and civil servants when previously they would not even sit in the same room. What we had then has now developed into an EU-wide regional organisation with legal powers over fisheries. We shared experience together on how to deal with many of the problems brought about by oil and gas exploration. Noble Lords will remember the Brent Spar. The North Sea Commission still does that work but it is now also heavily involved in renewable energy and the development of a North Sea energy grid. Coastal erosion, flooding and pollution are issues which all suggest that there is a need for a body which looks at the North Sea from a North Sea perspective rather than a local or national one.

Not very much has changed in the nine years since I stopped being involved, except for one big change which I did notice. In 2005, English local authorities from Newcastle down to Kent were members. Now, Southend is the only English representative on the North Sea Commission. Scottish councils are, thankfully, still very active. So what has happened? There is still a need for a body such as this. I saw no evidence that the NSC is less effective. Indeed, the presence of a number of very senior officials from the European Commission suggests that it is highly regarded, and the presence of members from all other countries, including Norway, which is not in the EU, suggests that it is still valued. So what has happened in England? I think that there are two factors and they are both relevant to this evening’s debate.

First, public services are increasingly required to demonstrate the outcomes of expenditure of public money. That is absolutely right, but it means that spending on areas where the outcomes are more intangible, such as partnerships, become harder to justify. Secondly, there is the irony that, as the world is becoming smaller and individuals travel more and communicate across the globe, outside, the notion that public servants and elected members might actually leave the country to meet colleagues is viewed with great suspicion and even hostility. To some extent, that is understandable. It is hard for elected members to justify foreign travel, even if it is to a wind farm in Germany, when cuts are being made in public services.

Returning to the narrower context of the North Sea Commission, it became clear to me at the conference that there will be an increased focus on the North Sea, especially in the context of energy. The EU is looking to the North Sea Commission to help to drive progress in these areas and, when that happens, there will be no English voices round the table. I think that that will be a serious omission. I should like the Government to consider what practical assistance can be given to ensure that that does not happen.

My Lords, as others have done, I thank my noble friend Lord Dundee for initiating this debate, and I welcome the opportunity to make a minor contribution.

My interest in active co-operation with other European cities and organisations began when I was a student, before the time when it was fashionable to make studying abroad part of a course. As a student teacher, I was invited to attend a student exchange at the Pädagogische Hochschule in Osnabrück. Here, I made many friends but, very importantly, I learnt about and observed the different teaching methods in Germany. Our 1960s liberal teaching methods were very different from the German structured form of learning.

Later in life, as a family, we were very active in an organisation called the Junior Chamber of Commerce, now known as the Jaycees. The international activities of the Jaycees brought together from all over the world individuals and families who shared an interest in business and commerce. Our children grew up seeing friends from all parts of the world over the breakfast table and, as a consequence, they learnt much about life from many different perspectives.

Several noble Lords have spoken about twinning arrangements after the Second World War. In my experience, however, many of the cities involved in twinning have developed their twinning arrangements well beyond their beginnings and the desire to create good will. My own city of Bradford, where I am an elected member, has had a number of twinning arrangements which were active in developing commercial, cultural and sporting links. The cities were Skopje, Roubaix, Mönchengladbach and Hamm. These cities shared common activities in business, trade, culture, the textile industry and other commercial activities, as well as being home to a number of minority ethnic groups.

As the leader of the council, I was very pleased to encourage the mutual interest in art and culture with Hamm in Germany. Bradford is the home of David Hockney and the city is proud to have collections of his works. Bradford and Hamm had an exchange of the work of the artist Otmar Alt and some of David Hockney’s works. Our parks and public spaces proudly showed the colourful modern sculptures of Otmar Alt and the people of Hamm delighted in the Hockney exhibition.

All of the activities I have described, and many others, have had many benefits for all involved—business, trade, culture, improved local government, more citizen participation and improved national and political stability. It is clear that working synergies already exist.

EUROCITIES was an example of 23 European cities working together around information-sharing, exchanging ideas and employment programmes. Members of EUROCITIES were able to influence policy workers in Brussels to help develop the social agenda. The many positive experiences that I have had, and those that I have observed, taught me that already many cities in the 47 states of the Council of Europe have the ability and the will to work together for the common good. I hope that the Governments of the member states can recognise the role and the ability of the Council of Europe in encouraging city-to-city diplomacy. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, has said, this project should not create the need for more officials and paid bureaucrats. Diplomacy should no longer be solely the prerogative of officials from foreign ministries. City-to-city diplomacy can, I am sure, make a major contribution to enhanced stability and democracy if the citizens themselves develop such diplomacy.

My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to congratulate my noble friend Lord Dundee on his excellent speech which launched this brief debate and I am grateful to him for his suggestions. I echo the specific question put at the end of her remarks by my noble friend Lady Scott and I should be grateful if the Minister would include me in the answer to it. It is a very pertinent question.

In this period of austerity it will be very sad if twinning withers on the vine and the working synergies, which are even more important, profound and deep, are cut back by budget pressures. Their achievements can be made at the margin on modest amounts of money. Without sounding too boastful, I remind the Committee of what we did in Harrow when we twinned with the last significant untwinned town in northern France, Douai—the judicial centre of northern France many years ago—which was a great success. The figures we issued of how much that programme cost were very modest. That was when there was no austerity and we could do it.

Perhaps I may make one European point as my noble friend Lord Wallace is in his place as the duty Whip. I have always found it bizarre that the anti-Europeans on the right-wing side of British politics are happy if companies and corporations become international and global but they do not like countries in the European Union to join others and link up on all sorts of things. I find that strange because not only does each country then benefit from the collective strength of the whole Union but its own individual sovereignty goes up; it does not go down. There is no loss of sovereignty in net terms. Everyone gets stronger and so does the Union. That is an example which, on an administrative scale, can be done for cities, towns, villages and so on. We were very proud of its success.

I declare an interest: I live on the Normandy-Picardy border because I had to live in at least one country that was in the eurozone when we foolishly failed to join the euro many years ago. I notice that the town twinning is now mostly not with English towns but with German ones. I am sure that noble Lords will agree that probably one of the finest stories in post-war Europe has been Franco-German reconciliation, with really deep relationships developing now. There is no withering on the vine in the twinning that I can see in those areas. There is work and synergies of all kinds, from football teams to choirs to individuals getting married—an extraordinary development of very profound relationships that are European as well as in the sense of being proud of one’s own country. The two things go together.

In Harrow I had the great pleasure and privilege of having Bentley Priory, the RAF base, in my constituency, where the Battle of Britain was directed by Air Chief Marshal Dowding. Because of that, with our liaison function, we always had a USAF officer, an officer from l’Armée de l’Air in France and, indeed, visiting German officers from the German air force. One year I was particularly pleased when I persuaded the organisers of the September Battle of Britain cocktail party to play not just the marvellous Royal Air Force march but the Luftwaffe march as well. The whole gathering applauded when the Luftwaffe march was played. It could not have been done decades before then but it is done now because people want to get together and we must provide those examples and opportunities to them.

I do not think it is right to say that officials should not be involved. Budgets must be strictly controlled but you need intelligent, constructive officialdom, not excessive bureaucracy. You need private initiative. You need companies to be involved. You need intellectuals, students and teachers. Then you begin to make progress of understanding at the lower levels of human society—not lower in the sense of being low, literally, but the more modest levels of your own village, district, town or city—and then rising up through the political system as well, so that politicians are involved in espousing those things and not being suspicious of them or hostile to them, as is the rather sinister atmosphere developing among, I hope, a small number of people in this country, some of whom may be heard tonight in the exchanges that are coming between two significant political leaders.

My Lords, I start by congratulating the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, on securing this debate. I thank him for initiating such an interesting and expert discussion. It is impossible not to admire the noble Earl’s commitment to and enthusiasm for city diplomacy, and the Opposition Front Bench welcomes the debate he has started. I was slightly disappointed by the response to this debate by one or two noble Lords, which was slightly negative, I think. No one is saying that this scheme is fixed for all time. The plans are beginning and it is very important that we should be broad-minded in our approach.

I think that I understand the difference between city diplomacy and town twinning, and must confess to an abiding support for the latter, having been involved in it at both city and small-town level for a number of years. I will make a few quick points. The idea of city diplomacy seems to be yet another example of soft power in action. We hear a lot, rightly, about the World Service and the British Council. I declare my interest as chairman of the British Council All-Party Parliamentary Group. But soft power should go beyond those two brilliant institutions.

The idea that local government, particularly cities, should play a part in diplomacy or soft power—whatever you want to call it—is not new. It has happened in green affairs around the world for a long time now. The noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, has great experience of local government in this field. The Dundee-Zadar city diplomacy project is an interesting and timely development. The noble Earl outlined his intent in his speech, saying that the purpose and effect of city-to-city diplomacy is to augment democracy and economic stability at a local, national and European level.

That seems sensible. Who could object to that as a principle? Of course it needs a great deal more working out in practice—no doubt that is what the Dundee-Zadar experiment will show us. This is also a question for the Minister: is it not particularly relevant at a time when Foreign Offices, not just in this country but around Europe, are looking for funding—desperate, in fact, for resources to undertake diplomacy and fulfil their function?

My city is Leicester, and I intend to pass the Hansard of this debate to the executive mayor’s office. The city has a strong tradition of twinning and of working with other cities, so I will do that locally, but in my role as part of the Opposition Front-Bench team responding to the debate, I intend to take the noble Earl’s idea about city diplomacy forward to be considered as part of future proposals. For the moment, however, it is this Government who have to respond to his debate. As always, I look forward to hearing what the noble Lord has to say.

My Lords, first, I join all other noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lord Dundee for giving us an opportunity to discuss this important subject. From listening to the contributions today, it is clear that this has generated a lot of interest across the Committee. The noble Lord, Lord Bach, and my noble friend Lady Eaton, raised the issue of soft power. That is important. Too often we are caught between what initiatives are being taken specifically and sometimes underrate soft power in terms of language, cultural exchanges and so on. That is an important part of city-to-city diplomacy.

I begin by reminding your Lordships of this Government’s commitment to localism. The Government have returned more powers to individuals, communities and local councils than many thought possible. Indeed, my noble friend has acknowledged this. We passed the Localism Act in 2011 to ensure that local people could come up with and implement the most effective solutions to local problems. As a former local councillor with responsibility for culture—in my own patch we had the All England Club—I had experience of the powerful messages that you could send through sport, a point made by my noble friend, and of extending that in city-to-city initiatives.

The Government’s view is that we need to give further control back to our cities and we are already seeing the success that this change has brought about. Only last week, Cambridge joined the ever-increasing number of British cities benefiting from a city deal. As noble Lords are of course aware, under this deal cities, including Cambridge, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds and many other successful cities, will now have greater responsibility for and control over decisions that affect them, and a greater chance to shape their own development.

My noble friend Lord Dundee talked about the importance of city-to-city initiatives, particularly in encouraging active citizenship and general well-being. Giving back power was the start of that process. We now want cities and regions to use the freedom they now have to strengthen their communities and economies. All places are unique. Some places will do that better than others. Some policies will work well; others may take time before they get going. So it is important that local policymakers have the opportunity to discuss among themselves, to share success stories and discuss possible risks and pitfalls.

The Local Government Association encourages this domestically. My noble friend Lady Eaton played an important role in this respect as a former chairman. Its Peer Challenge and Knowledge Hub programmes are good examples of developing better practice through engagement but, as my noble friend Lord Dundee pointed out, and as he knows well from his considerable experience with cities in the sterling work that he has done in the UK and in Croatia, there is much that can be gained from sharing experience internationally, and we have worked hard to develop spaces for cities to share best practice.

In answer to my noble friend’s question, we support fully the strengthening of such initiatives, and city-to-city diplomacy can play an extremely important role in developing local democracy. The UK Government will continue to support institutions facilitating this development. Indeed, my noble friend Lady Stowell of Beeston is currently in Strasbourg to address the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities.

The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, asked about trade. That is a valid issue to raise. UKTI encourages cities to focus directly on activities such as building their local foreign direct investment capacity, understanding their sector or other strengths and establishing inward investment propositions for their area. The noble Lord, Lord Bach, will recognise that many embassies around the world have a UKTI hub to encourage bilateral trade. I hope that point will be welcomed by my noble friend Lady Wilcox.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is one of the organisations that provides such spaces for city-to-city diplomacy. It brings together experts to discuss policy challenges and solutions, in relation to both specific cities and wider urban policy. OECD analysis was used to good effect to support the introduction of the city deals that I have already mentioned. Another example of the value provided by OECD co-operation is the project in which Manchester is currently participating. Organised by the Directorate for Public Governance and Territorial Development of the OECD, this project brings together a small group of international cities with the aim of finding best practice for dealing with ageing populations, which is an increasingly relevant topic.

The OECD urban working party directs initiatives, such as the Manchester ageing project, and other OECD work on cities, such as the recent project on green growth in the Benelux. The UK recognises the value of OECD work in this area and plays an active role in the urban working party. The environment was also mentioned quite forcefully and rightfully by my noble friend Lord Dykes.

My noble friend Lady Wilcox mentioned the Council of Europe. It has a strong track record and has an important role to play in city-to-city diplomacy. With the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities and the European Committee on Democracy and Governance, the Council of Europe can facilitate direct exchanges between cities and local authorities and allow national Governments and local authorities to take a step back and address strategic challenges faced by cities and regions in Europe. As noble Lords will know, the UK sends a sizeable delegation of local and municipal officials to the congress. The delegation, with a mandate of four years, is made up of 18 full members and 18 substitute members from local authorities and the devolved Administrations.

The UK is also represented at the European Committee on Democracy and Governance, which we chaired until January 2014. During our chairmanship of the Council of Europe in 2011-12, the UK achieved wide consensus on our priority of streamlining the Council of Europe’s activities on local democracy to ensure the effective co-ordination of activities and the efficient use of resources. The creation of the Centre of Expertise for Local Government Reform marked another step forward in the Council of Europe’s capacity to help cities and regions develop best practice through co-operation.

Within the European Union there are many opportunities for city-to-city diplomacy. I assure noble Lords that the Government, through attending various EU meetings, seek to disseminate information from EU presidency meetings designed to spread good practice among cities.

Noble Lords will be aware of the Committee of the Regions, which provides further opportunities. It aims to shape future EU policy decisions by getting involved in policy-making at an early stage and has greater influence now than before the Lisbon treaty. The UK appreciates the importance of ensuring that the impact of EU legislation on local issues is understood. The UK delegation promotes UK local government and devolved Administration interests in EU law-making and decision-taking.

The ERD fund is another key tool in facilitating city-to-city contact. The ongoing negotiations on the new sustainable urban development programme illustrate how this Government are working hard in Brussels to make sure that UK cities can access this tool. When our cities and regions are able to work with the fund, it is clear that engagement is worth while.

Using funds from the EU and national Governments, Glasgow is yet another example of a city now working with 11 partner cities to promote the employability of young people in the labour market. Birmingham is leading a group of 10 cities as they develop links between creative industries across Europe. Manchester is one of six cities sharing work on how to use financial instruments better in municipal planning. Here in London, Westminster local authority is engaging with Barcelona, Dublin and five other cities to promote urban markets as key drivers of economic development, urban regeneration and sustainable living.

My noble friend Lady Scott and, I believe, my noble friend Lord Dykes talked of EU funding for regions and cities. I have already illustrated some of the instruments that are available. EU funding has been valuable in city-to-city diplomacy but we must continue to make sure that access to this funding is available for our cities. The co-operation seen in the frameworks for the Council of Europe and the OECD are examples of this. Specific mention was made of the North Sea Commission and that UK representation was declining in that respect. The Government have introduced measures allowing local authorities more and greater control over their budgets, and they can now appropriately prioritise their spending. If those local authorities see the value of the North Sea Commission, they can of course pursue that.

I apologise for interrupting the noble Lord but is he aware that when the Secretary of State in another place makes comments from the Floor of the Chamber criticising individual local authorities for participating in travel abroad, it really does not help the Government’s case?

I am sure that has been noted in Hansard and I will write specifically to my noble friend in that respect.

My noble friend Lady Eaton talked about sporting links and the noble Lord, Lord Bach, talked about soft power. I have already alluded to the fact that this is an important part of city-to-city diplomacy. The Olympic Games in London in 2012 were an excellent sporting spectacle from which all cities could learn—indeed, we are sharing experiences across the world. The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, and the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, also raised concerns that twinning is declining, in part due to budget constraints. This Government have brought in a raft of measures intended to give local authorities more control over and responsibility for their budgets, and we allow them to decide on their spending priorities as they are directly accountable to their electorate. City-to-city diplomacy has provided twinning schemes and I fully acknowledge the worth of those that have been set up.

I am increasingly aware that we are running slightly short of time. The exchange of views between cities should, of course, lead to stronger communities, more effective policing and more proactive education for young people. However, as my noble friend Lady Wilcox said, these new initiatives should not lead to increased bureaucracy. We can see that when conditions are created that allow city and local authorities to interact and co-operate on areas close to them, best practice develops and our cities thrive.

My noble friend Lord Dundee has made a powerful and persuasive argument, which I know Ministers and officials across Whitehall will reflect on. I pay tribute to the leadership that he has shown on this issue and look forward to further efforts to strengthen the role of city-to-city diplomacy in the future.