Europe

Now let’s get back to what really matters in the UK

Now the referendum is out of the way, let’s get back to what really matters: capitalising on the UK’s strengths and confronting its weaknesses and profound demographic changes. Or, to adapt a phrase, it’s about cities, stupid.

Cities were abandoned in the referendum debate – by a distance the most hateful, fear-inducing, wilfully ignorant political event of recent memory.

Much of the Brexiteers’ argument centered on sovereignty – those who run the country should be answerable to its citizens.

Many Remainers believed the best of both worlds was the alternative – national sovereignty plus the benefits of an international club.

What was forgotten by both sides – temporarily I hope – was that, by and large, it is cities that determine economic and political decision-making in the world today.

Half of the planet’s population lives in cities, and that number is growing, especially in Asia. Cities, meanwhile, generate four-fifths of global GDP. As long ago as 2011, McKinsey said: “In terms of economic might, consider that just 40 city regions are responsible for over two-thirds of the total world economy and most of its innovation.” How much truer has this become over the past half decade?

And if ever a picture could improve upon words, you can see it in photos of earth taken by Tim Peake from the international space station: yellow dots piercing the blackness: each an urban cluster, a hive of economic activity.

At this week’s International Festival of Business in Liverpool, where the property industry was featured on Wednesday and Thursday, it was apparent. Council chief executives such as Manchester’s Sir Howard Bernstein, Liverpool’s Ged Fitzgerald, and Newcastle’s Pat Ritchie extolled the virtues of their cities. And each made the case that they were greater than the sum of their parts when marching together under the Northern Powerhouse flag. A similar note was struck by the investors present too: Oxford Properties’ Paul Brundage, Moorfield Group’s Robbert Zoet and Hermes Real Estate’s Chris Taylor.

It wasn’t a message universally well received. One figure at the conference not celebrating the second birthday of George Osborne’s flagship initiative – it fell on Friday – was Lord Prescott. The Northern Powerhouse, he said, was neither Northern enough nor a powerhouse.

But Prescott was very much in a minority. More common was the view of Alun Cairns, secretary of state for Wales, who told Ritchie, Bernstein and Fitzgerald that he wanted to hitch North Wales to the Northern Powerhouse bandwagon, ensuring his patch benefited from its urban investment.

And it’s no wonder. For investors, UK cities – or city regions – have proven one of the safest havens in the world for their money, offering security and opportunity despite global economic and political wobbles.

This urban drive has been mirrored by a step change in the way cities work together over the past five years: more co-operation, more partnerships, more playing to individual strengths.

So cities get it. Real estate gets it. This government usually gets it, except when politics gets in the way.

But just as the referendum paused investment, it paused rationality and focus on what really matters when it comes to acknowledging the role and influence of cities. And like so much else we have witnessed in recent days and weeks that mustn’t continue.

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