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Future of Small Cities Following Covid-19

Volume 712: debated on Tuesday 26 April 2022

I will call Daniel Zeichner to move the motion, and I will then call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of small cities following the covid-19 outbreak.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Nokes. Let me start by saying that the pandemic clearly is not over—this debate is very much looking ahead. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a huge subject, about small cities in general. I have a particular interest in Cambridge, my own small city, and in the future of the community that I represent and in which I live.

There are many things that could be said on this topic. I am conscious that it is a short debate and there are other Members who want to make a contribution. I therefore offer a warning to any watchers or readers: be aware that this will be a very narrow account, dealing particularly with issues of work and innovation. There is much more to be said on a whole range of issues, such as housing, fairness, mental health, transport, environmental sustainability, and air and water quality, but for today only, I will just touch on many of those issues.

The stimulus for this debate is the report by Cambridge Ahead entitled, “A New Era for the Cambridge Economy”. I pay tribute to the many Cambridge thinkers who have started the ball rolling on this discussion as we think about the world beyond the pandemic. I will mention in particular Jane Paterson-Todd and her team, Metro Dynamics, who were the lead authors, and the chair, Dr David Cleevely—there were many others.

The report sits in a wider framework. I have long felt that our goal as leaders should be to make Cambridge the best small city in the world. For me, when we are seeking to understand what that might look like, the idea of one city fair for all must be at its heart—social justice is essential. I am delighted that that runs as a golden thread throughout the report.

That goal will inevitably be delivered through the work of local leaders. I will name just a few: Councillor Anna Smith, the city council leader; Councillor Katie Thornburrow on the local plan; and Dr Nik Johnson, the Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. I have named some of my Labour colleagues, but I well appreciate the work of many others within and beyond local government. Future success will only be achieved in partnership; I look to the Government, and the Department in particular, to work with us to find constructive ways forward.

Let me turn to some lessons from the pandemic. A leitmotif for many of us was, “You’re on mute!”—I think many of us will remember that for years to come—but the report picked up on many more things. When it was launched a few weeks ago, I could not help noticing that it was picked up in the national media, by the Daily Mail and The Times, and it was almost as if the only issue was whether people should go back to the workplace—that is an ongoing conversation in Government, as I understand it.

However, those reports missed the core point of the report; frankly, the paradigm has shifted and the world has changed. The question is how to adapt and turn that change to our advantage. Let us be clear that for many workers in Cambridge and elsewhere, there is no choice. The street cleaners, the cabbies, the bus drivers, the hospitality workers, the cleaners, the health workers, the lab workers, the manufacturing workers and many people in schools and universities did not have a choice—all those people had to be in their workplace all the way through the pandemic and will continue to be there.

The knowledge economy is different. In some ways, historically, Cambridge has evolved in a unique way to foster networking. Those who are familiar with the college system will know that it has its pluses and minuses, but one of the great bonuses is the sense of people being together and meeting in human-sized communities. When one looks at the way the science parks, innovation centres and networking organisations, such as Cambridge Network, Cambridge Ahead and Cambridge Angels, have grown up, along with many of the consultancies that have emerged in Cambridge, one can see that it is key that those opportunities for people to meet and discuss continue as they have in the past.

David Cleevely talks passionately about what he calls the serendipity of the chance meetings that so often lead to breakthrough ideas. I have lost count of the number of people who have told me they were padlocking their bicycles in Cambridge and a chance conversation led to an investment opportunity, a discussion or a new idea. Those moments—in other places they are the water-cooler moments; in Cambridge, they are the bike-locking moments—are crucial.

The report argues that policy makers need to understand how these changes will work for city economies, so that we can respond positively and take advantage of them. Our places must not only be resilient to the shocks of the future but evolve, adapt and mature through the process, taking the opportunity to do things better than they were done before. To achieve that, we must be on the front foot and experiment to help us understand what new demands we need to make of our cities, and how resources could and should provide for all.

Cambridge Ahead is a business-led and academic membership organisation. It has been looking at the structural changes that have occurred in Cambridge during and after the pandemic, looking at internationally competitive companies, and bringing together world-leading thinkers to identify the impacts of the pandemic and the opportunities it might present. Clearly, the report was produced through the lens of Cambridge, but I believe much can be learned for other great small cities across the UK. Cambridge Ahead concluded that the UK is on a new path and that the changes we are seeing are substantially changing the city’s dynamics in a number of ways. I will touch on three points.

First, transport patterns have altered. It is pretty clear that private vehicles are still being used in preference to public transport. Public transport numbers have recovered, but not to pre-covid levels. The timing of people’s journeys has also shifted. That offers both a threat and an opportunity. There is a danger of gridlock, frankly, but if we can spread the peaks and understand that road spaces are a precious commodity, there is an opportunity to do something differently—to develop active travel in a city the size of Cambridge. There is a genuine opportunity to shift to things such as electric bikes—I am a passionate user of an electric bike myself; they are ideal for small cities such as Cambridge—and reliable, affordable mass transit into and out of the city to make sure that those outside the city are not disadvantaged.

This is a time of real opportunity, but to realise it, we have to resolve the vexed issue of financing such a transition. I make no apology for referring the Minister to my very first speech in this place, back in 2015. Perhaps slightly unusually in a first speech, I talked about tax increment financing and how close Cambridge had come to securing a truly innovative deal a few years earlier, until the dead hand of the Treasury descended, as it so often does. It is time for the Government to look at that again.

Secondly, the demand for space is changing. Perhaps counterintuitively, demand for office space in Cambridge continues to grow, even though not everyone is back. The report details why that is: people want to maintain a space, and with social distancing and so on, we do not necessarily have people back together in quite the same way. At the same time, people are also working from home. The report concludes that it looks as if we are going to settle back at somewhere between three and four days a week in the office for most people, meaning one and a half days working at home.

That means that people are working in places that were never originally designed as workplaces, which raises some real challenges, not least the need to develop far more neighbourhoods—or quarters, as one might call them—with services nearby. Academics are talking widely about the 15-minute city. We need to do that and find a way to create it. We also need green spaces for people to be able to enjoy those new workplaces. That is a very big planning issue and there are many ways to address it, but I gently suggest—this might be slightly controversial at home—that for Cambridge, where many of our green spaces are locked behind college walls, sharing that space more equitably with citizens of our city should be high on the list for those who have the opportunity to make these decisions.

The hon. Member is making an excellent speech. As he said, I am a neighbour of his; I am the MP for the bit of Cambridge that is not in his constituency. I pay tribute to Cambridge Ahead, which does excellent work—this is an excellent report.

The hon. Member makes a lot of interesting points about the changing nature of Cambridge. I just want to highlight a couple of other things. You mentioned quite a range of workers who could not work from home, but I do not think you included laboratory workers. A lot of those who work for life sciences companies, particularly in my constituency, have to go into laboratories to work, and they often stayed there throughout the pandemic. You mentioned the shortage of office space—

I am sorry, Ms Nokes. The hon. Member mentioned the shortage of office space, but there is also a shortage of wet lab space that is constraining a lot of companies. Perhaps he is going to come to this, but the changing nature of the high street is also very important, not only in Cambridge but in some of the villages in my constituency, particularly because people are doing more online shopping and there is a changing demand. The report is excellent, and I pay tribute to its authors.

I am grateful for those contributions—they are all important. I mentioned lab workers in passing at the beginning, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The Cambridge economy is perhaps slightly different from other parts of the country, but many of these lessons, particularly those relating to reinventing the high street, will be key. The report picks up on the fact that a number of companies are looking at setting up work spaces in other areas, not necessarily in the city centre, so it is likely that there will be a different pattern to the way in which people work in future.

The third and final point that I will pull out from the report—this is, inevitably, a brief summary of a long, complicated report—is that the biggest thing for innovation in Cambridge is, as I have already hinted, how networks work and may change. New working patterns affect the frequency and manner in which we interact with people. There are generally many benefits to homeworking. At the document’s launch there was a discussion about our need—I think we can all appreciate this—for places where we are not being constantly interrupted and where we can think and work through ideas. Homeworking provides an opportunity for such a productive space, and it can clearly boost people’s quality of life.

However—and this is key for innovation—we still need to create moments of value where people come together. The report describes that as making “serendipitous encounters” happen—in other places, that could be the water cooler moment—which has been key to Cambridge’s success. Many people over many years have asked why Cambridge has done so well. This is one of the key understandings that we have learned over the years. We have to ensure that, in the transition to different working patterns, we do not lose that. To be frank, that is important not only for Cambridge. Cambridge is a key, significant driver not just of the regional economy but of the wider UK economy, so it is very important to the Government.

That is a brief summary of a much longer argument, but lessons can be pulled out for other small cities, too. Cambridge has a proud tradition of innovation and we could be an ideal test bed for new approaches. Our economy continues to grow and there are opportunities to observe, measure, experiment and learn. That will require selecting projects to monitor proactively, publish data and test ideas, so that other cities can benefit and share in the experience, with an emphasis on generating societal benefit for every community.

We are asking Government to work with Cambridge and perhaps other like-minded cities to take the work forward to the next step. I hope the Government will follow up on this discussion and agree to meet us to discuss the creation of what might be called a multi-disciplinary test bed: a framework for implementing experiments and studies, covering health, education, climate, retail, town and city centre offers, transport, housing, business models and the evolution of office and industrial space. Cities across the UK have different characteristics and face different challenges, and they will want to experiment in different ways. Of course, an experimental approach is not without risks. Some experiments will fail, but the vital thing is to have the mechanisms to monitor and learn.

In conclusion, our cities have changed substantially and will continue to do so. There will be no return to the way things were, so let us take action together to take advantage of these changes and give our cities the resilience they need to face the future.

This is a 30-minute debate and we have not had notification that the hon. Member for Gloucester wanted to speak.

Thank you, Ms Nokes. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak very briefly about the future of small cities. The key thing is that historically small cities have lost out from consolidation and regionalisation by both Government and the private sector.

Big cities have the advantages of size, but small cities such as Gloucester have an enormous amount to contribute. We have fantastic cathedrals and great sports clubs such as Gloucester Rugby. We are highly rated by the Centre for Cities research on patent applications and digital connectivity, and we have all sorts of diversity, including a primary school with more than 50 nationalities. All of that can lead to very vibrant cities.

The Government’s role is to help us achieve our goal to be the greenest small city—converting our recycling centre such that it will be able to produce solar, wind and hydrogen: green energy made in Gloucester—and to enable us to realise our dream of becoming the cyber-city and cyber-county, and also the nuclear county, with nuclear fusion bids, as well as a bid to host Great British Railways and all sorts of activity on the cyber front.

Will the Minister continue to be flexible on the best structure for local government? Our city council is important to us. Will he ensure that local government is given sensible funding to guard against cyber-attacks and hacking from Russia, and will he continue the great work on the levelling-up fund? We in turn will deliver one of Britain’s most exciting small cities and a model for others.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) on securing a debate on an issue that matters to so many communities across this country. The future prospects of small cities and our future support for them are real, tangible things that people in this country care deeply about. I commend him for his ongoing interest and convicti-on.

It almost goes without saying that covid-19 changed the world as we knew it. I cannot think of any part of the country that went untouched. Although the virus was a doomsday event for the businesses that make up our high streets, its effects—the hon. Gentleman has highlighted this in the past—were not evenly distributed. For places such as university cities and tourism hotspots, the effects of the virus were particularly profound. The issues created by the shutdown of local economies and the temporary closure of high streets were massively exacerbated by having fewer students and tourists in the city. For cities such as Cambridge, Oxford or York, whose populations always swell in size during normal times, the loss of revenue was especially damaging. I know that the hon. Gentleman will have felt that pain acutely, as Cambridge usually attracts more than 8 million visitors a year, bringing in about £800 million and accounting for nearly a quarter of all employment in the city.

I firmly believe that the Government, thanks to the support from the Treasury, did everything possible to support cities and places to weather the storm. That included billions of pounds of covid loans, furlough support and money to local authorities to support their communities. Those economic lifelines helped to keep businesses going, keep people in jobs and, most importantly, keep people safe from the virus. But it is right, with covid almost, I hope, in the rear-view mirror, that we look beyond the pandemic and at the wider economic geography of this country.

Although the virus was a generational event, we do not need to be economists to recognise that wider issues plaguing many of our small cities and towns have long predated the pandemic, including a lack of opportunities and good-quality jobs, and life prospects diminished by areas being overlooked and undervalued. Places across the country with proud histories have seen generation after generation leave the area in search of a brighter future that did not feel was possible where they were.

We need only to look at the high streets in some of the small cities dotted around the UK to see that they have been taken for granted for too long. Even places such as Cambridge, which draws millions of tourists and thousands of students, and places with a rich cultural heritage have at times been like a jet plane powered by only one of its engines. It does not have to be that way.

The Government party stood on a manifesto that promised to end the status quo, delivering policies and plans to usher in new opportunities across the country. That means reviving the fortunes and transforming some of our much loved cities, big and small, creating vibrant places and communities where people want to live and work.

In February we launched, in our levelling-up White Paper, our blueprint for how we get there. It outlines a huge number of measures designed to close gaps in health, education and wealth between regions, and inequalities that disfigure this country, including those in the east of England. It draws together policies on education, transport, housing, research and development and many other areas of Government spending. It is a plan that sets out a clear, targeted and measurable approach to breathing fresh life into our cities and improving the lives of people across the UK.

People want to see buzzing high streets. My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne) is right to raise the changing nature of many of our high streets and how we can tackle that. People want thriving local businesses and to see their children in good schools. They also want money to be invested back into things that strengthen the social fabric locally —from renovating the local theatre or museum, to constructing a neighbourhood community centre and preserving a centuries-old pub.

We believe that with the right approach—an approach that takes a long view and focuses on policies such as regeneration and proper devolution to local leaders—the results can be more money in the pockets of those people who need it most, more high-skilled jobs and more new investment attracted to an area.

May I draw the Minister’s attention to one aspect of Gloucester’s success with the levelling-up fund, which is the first ever conversion in this country of a department store into a university teaching campus? It will open in September 2023 and I hope he will have the chance to visit it one day. That is also an opportunity for other cities.

That is exactly the sort of innovation that we want to see in towns and cities all over the country, where people locally know what is best for their communities and of the existing opportunities, such as an empty building or area in need of redevelopment. Such local decision making will be key to ensuring that we maximise the potential for local communities. I thank my hon. Friend for raising that.

I also emphasise, as I have many times in the past, the moral imperative to level up the country. Levelling up is not about an arbitrary divide that starts just to the north of the Watford gap, and nor is it about a London versus everyone else divide; it is about breathing new life into, and offering a more prosperous future to, neglected areas across the country that have for years felt forgotten by Westminster. I assure every Member present that those places in the east—Cambridge, Peterborough, Luton, Bury St Edmunds—and those further afield, such as Gloucester, are just as central to our levelling-up ambitions as Sunderland, Darlington and Grimsby.

The hon. Member for Cambridge has said that while slogans come and go, we need a proper regional policy. I could not agree more. For our strategy to work, it has to be more than a slogan; it has to be something that people can really see and feel where they live. One of the central pillars, therefore, is regeneration, and I am delighted with the progress that we are making on that front. The towns fund of more than £3.6 billion is helping to create jobs and to build more resilient local communities and economies. Our investment of £2.4 billion through the town deals for 101 towns across England is giving them the tools they need to boost their local economy.

Hon. Members will have seen at first hand how that funding is supporting regeneration in the east of England. The region has received more than £287 million through our towns fund for several projects to support growth, regenerate public spaces, as the hon. Member for Cambridge mentioned, and improve transport. A fantastic example is the city of Peterborough, which will benefit from a range of new cultural facilities in the city centre, including a lakeside activity centre and the creation of new pedestrian links to improve access to the riverside and its green spaces, alongside the brand-new university opening its doors for the first time later this year. That is levelling up in action, and is just one of hundreds of examples.

We are soon to open the next round of our £4.8 billion levelling-up fund, and I encourage all smaller cities to get their bids in and to secure investment that will help to deliver on local priorities for the people they serve.

I am encouraged by much of what the Minister is saying. Cambridge is in a slightly different position, with slightly different issues. Will he undertake to meet Cambridge Ahead to look at how we can take things forward in future?

I was literally about to come on to the hon. Member’s point. For me and the Department, regeneration has a fundamental role to play in the levelling-up agenda. By bringing together the vast experience that exists in our private sector businesses, local authorities, developers and local communities, we can create vibrant cities and restore people’s pride in the places where they live.

The hon. Member mentioned the Cambridge Ahead report, and I loved his comment that his ambition is for Cambridge to be the best small city in the world. The Government are clear that, as I have said, levelling up means levelling up all over the country—and that, of course, includes Cambridge. He will understand that certain points he raised on education and transport are not in my Department’s remit. None the less, the values he raised from the report sound like they could be of value to our Department’s levelling-up mission. I particularly welcome the report’s recommendations for a more resilient city with well-designed, inclusive spaces. That will be a key element of some of the work we will be doing in the forthcoming months. I will ensure that this report is reviewed and taken into consideration by my Department as we consider the next steps from the levelling-up White Paper. More importantly, I am more than happy to ensure that officials meet people in Cambridge to discuss the report further.

I want to touch on another central theme of our levelling-up plans, and that is devolution. As part of our diagnosis of the challenges that areas are facing, we recognise that low-paid, low-productivity work is largely concentrated in areas that are disconnected from much bigger cities. We believe that one of the principal solutions should be levelling up by devolving down, with a proper revolution in how we approach local democracy—one that replicates some of the extraordinary successes that have come from the introduction of metro Mayors in places such as Teesside and the west midlands. We believe that that is a winning formula for giving back control to areas over their own destiny.

That kind of devolution is what will propel us beyond what Michael Heseltine termed “the traditional Whitehall solution” of

“throwing money at individual identified problems”.

Our approach will embody the Heseltine approach to devolution, where the focus is not based on north, south, east and west, but on devolving power to cities and devolving to towns. For the east of England, that process has already begun, with Norfolk and Suffolk among the first wave of areas being invited to discuss county deals.

I will finish by thanking the hon. Member for championing the cause of small cities and bringing the debate to us today. I hope I have laid out our vision for how we offer these places a positive vision for the post-covid era, with policies and initiatives that meet the urgent needs of the moment. Individually these policies would do little to transform the fortunes of any given place, but taken together our levelling-up plans, with new hospitals, new county deals, new 4G infrastructure investment and new powers for local leaders have the potential to lift up every single city and strengthen its social fabric.

Local government and local institutions worked with national Government throughout the pandemic to support people through one of the most challenging periods in the history of this country. We did that in the spirit of collaboration and with a desire to protect people from a deadly virus. I am certain that if we work together and apply the same spirit and zeal that we showed in that moment to levelling up our country, we can deliver on the things that matter to people. I know that all hon. Members present share the motivations behind that agenda, even if we may sometimes disagree on the precise means of getting there, and I look forward to working hand in hand with hon. Members present and on all sides of the political divide to make that a reality.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.