Two Years On: Cities Policy Roundtable Event Report

Two Years On: Cities Policy Roundtable Event Report

Two years after the UK went into lockdown, IPPO held a day-long series of sessions on March 24, 2022 to examine what lessons we must learn for future policymaking. The video of the special Cities Policy Roundtable is below, with further reflections from IPPO Cities’  Jeremy Williams.

City and regional leaders from across all four UK nations set out their strategic approach to the day’s theme of “not wasting a good crisis”, and shared their insights on how they were using their recovery plans as an opportunity to confront structural issues.

Economy, Planet, and People

Aberdeen’s Chief Executive Angela Scott, who wrote for IPPO Cities in advance of the event, set out her authority’s response.  For Aberdeen, the shock of the pandemic foreshadowed the kind of ruptures which could occur if the move to a Net Zero economy was not appropriately managed.  The city’s pandemic recovery was thus focused on building resilience by moving away from an economy reliant on fossil fuels.  The Covid experience had seen a renewed determination from stakeholders to manage the energy transition, with the involvement of the community also key for its future success.

The pandemic also illuminated other pre-existing structural issues, including those around the sustainability of the current model of Adult Social Care services.  In Aberdeen’s case, the response to these challenges included initiatives like establishing family wellbeing hubs, a new family support model, and building capacity to tackle the mental health effects of the pandemic in children and young people.

The Importance of Partnership Working

In London as in elsewhere, the experience of the pandemic exacerbated existing inequalities.  Jules Pipe, the city’s Deputy Mayor for Planning, Regeneration and Skills, stressed how the last two years had re-emphasised the importance of partnership working, including for building an effective and equitable recovery.  The London Recovery Board, co-chaired by the Mayor and with a membership drawn from across different layers of government and the public sector, business, and civil society, was one vehicle by which the city was deploying a co-ordinated approach in confronting the issues the pandemic magnified.

Further actions taken in the capital include a New Deal for Young People, which included mentoring for all young people by 2024, and partnership programmes between academies and employers to get people into skilled jobs.  Work was also being undertaken around London’s high streets, including innovative funding and data partnerships, as well as working with community groups to find new uses for vacant spaces.

Economic Growth as a Means not an End

In common with other areas, the Cardiff Capital City Region saw the pandemic exacerbate and heighten systemic issues to which work was already underway to confront.  Kellie Beirne, Director of the region’s City Deal set out her focus on the importance of economic growth in driving the road to recovery, including conducting a deep dive into the evidence base around productivity.

The lesson in the Cardiff region was that inclusive growth did not just mean economic benefits, but also involved using innovation to anticipate and respond to societal issues and problems.  This saw increasing co-investment with the private sector being used to address issues like generations of worklessness, endemic child poverty, and big health inequalities.  The City Region was also taking the lead through initiatives like seed funding for public sector innovation, and the purchasing of a coal power station to transform into a green energy hub.

Building Resilience and Confronting the Skills Gap

John Greer, Economic Development Director of Belfast City Council also set out his authority’s approach.  The resilience of the city’s technology sector during the pandemic, boosted by the moving of many services online, contrasted with the lack of resilience shown by many more traditional sectors on which the city was dependent, including tourism.  The pandemic also shone a light on disparities between the city’s high levels of inward foreign investment, and prevailing areas of deprivation.

Innovation actions being undertaken to build for recovery included the establishment of an inclusive labour market board including universities, education, training providers, employers, and the public sector.  The board connected evidence on skills gaps to help people break into high growth industries and jobs, as well as encouraging digital industries themselves be more inclusive.  A focus on developing social economy infrastructure and establishing an equity fund allowing business to respond to social challenges were further recovery initiatives currently being undertaken.

Harnessing the Social Fabric

The pandemic also demonstrated the many strengths of the social fabric in cities across the world.  In Aberdeen, the faith community played a prominent role in the immunisation programme including around persuasion, with volunteering also a prominent show of civic strength.  In London, a shared sense of purpose which existed among different groups, sectors, and communities was key to the city’s response.

For city leaders, these successes of the pandemic were a re-enforcement of existing knowledge about the multi-faceted strength of their communities.   A key takeaway for cities’ future resilience will be being able to harness these inbuilt advantages of the social fabric to confront future challenges such as Net Zero.  London’s ongoing work on community hubs is one such example of an initiative building on these strengths that the pandemic re-affirmed.

Interventions For Carers and Children and Young People

The recovery also provides an opportunity for interventions targeted at particular groups.  For example, Belfast City Council was engaged in increasing support for those with at-home caring responsibilities and working with partners on a model for further investment.  Likewise, joint interventions on early years childcare in Scotland, or a recent Welsh pilot on support for care leavers operating under an updated evidence base in light of the pandemic, were cited as examples of innovative work in this area.

The recovery also saw cities explicitly involving children and young people in the planning of their futures.   In Belfast, children and young people led the design plans for an urban beach and park, while in Aberdeen, a mock COP saw young people involved in holding the city to account in its meeting Net Zero route map targets.

Multi-Level Governance and Devolution

The pandemic and its recovery demonstrated both the need for co-operation between different levels of government, as well as areas where devolution would provide benefits.  With the UK government’s Levelling Up agenda front and centre in current thinking among city and regional leaders, the importance of a place-based approach for successful recovery was stressed.  The leaders also agreed that despite the different levels of autonomy in their respective localities, the pandemic demonstrated the need for the UK to go further on devolution.  This was necessary in order to both confront the inequalities, as well as to utilise the strengths, that the experience of the pandemic magnified.