Minister proposes decentralisation of power to cities and city regions, and backs spending on public transport

Communities minister David Miliband this week set out his vision for UK regeneration by launching his long awaited policy framework for urban areas in Britain.

The State of the Cities report sets out a series of proposals, such as giving more financial freedom to councils, encouraging investment in cities in the Midlands and the North, and for greater control for "city regions" over what central government money is spent on.

The study marks a broadening of the ODPM's focus, which has been concentrated on the southern "growth areas" and the northern housing market renewal pathfinders. It also implies a shift of emphasis from deputy prime minister John Prescott's 2003 Communities Plan.

In addition Miliband moved to show he was his own man by:

  • Backing low density housing against the government's draft PPS3 proposals requiring a minimum density level
  • Predicting further powers for London mayor Ken Livingstone
  • Restating the government's commitment to the original vision of the Urban Task Force, even though Prescott has criticised its recent progress report.
Tom Bloxham, Urban Splash's chief executive, who is also chair of the Institute for Public Policy Research's Centre for Cities, said the report demonstrated how much progress had been achieved in towns and cities over the past 10 years.

He added: "But it also shows that there is still a lot for the government to do especially in smaller towns, like Morecambe and Walsall."

He welcomed the recommendation that city regional authorities ought to have greater control over strategic matters such as planning and transport.

"There are some issues that would be best controlled at national and regional level and others that are best controlled at the city level by giving greater freedom to authorities," he said.

Roger Madelin, the chief executive of developer Argent, said the report was right to recognise the importance of strong political leadership in urban areas.

The direction of travel is clear. The only way forward is devolution

David Miliband

He said: "Although good transport and education are clearly important, so is strong leadership. He said that in both Manchester and Birmingham, where the company had developed, it had been able to work with strong authorities.

The report, drawn up by a team of academics led by Professor Michael Parkinson of Sir John Moores University in Liverpool, conducted the most extensive study ever of England's largest cities.

It shows that the economic performance of the country's urban areas has improved in recent years, but reveals that just three English cities - London, Bristol and Leeds - figure in the top 50 European urban areas on the basis of economic performance.

The 56 primary urban areas surveyed in the report contain 58% of the country's population and 63% of its jobs. Despite an improved economic performance the report shows the pull of the suburbs and the Countryside remains strong. Fifty-eight per cent of population growth in England between 1997 and 2003 was in smaller towns and rural areas, though this was lower than the 64% between 1991 and 1997.

Miliband's backing for low-density housing breaks with the ODPM's conventional wisdom. Miliband argues that councils should provide for a wide range of types and densities to cater for different households, including families.

He added that the current review of the Greater London Authority would lead to more powers for Livingstone and his successors. "London is not standing still. The direction of travel is clear. The only way forward is devolution. The only question is how much, and the rest of the country has to take note of that." Miliband said the review of the powers of the Greater London Authority and this week's report were two key elements in a package of measures, culminating in a white paper during the summer, which will pave the way for improved strategic decision making in England's cities.

Miliband also told Building that the government remained committed to the vision set out in the 1999 urban task force report, which led to this week's study. "I think that the vision that developed in the Urban Task Force report is very inspiring," he said.

Key proposals

  • Improved urban public transport should be a “top priority” for central and local government.
  • More financial freedom for local councils
  • More investment in northern and Midlands cities
  • More investment in infrastructure to support housing growth
  • Greater backing from across government for the Northern Way growth strategy
  • Councils within city regions should collaborate more on strategic matters, such as housing
  • Greater control for city regions over central government spending on housing, transport and economic development