Last week Montagu Evans hosted an event in partnership with Centre for Cities, the leading think tank focused on the importance of the performance of UK city economies. The event was a theme at the very heart of what we do: how leadership can deliver sustainable change and place-making in city economies.

I was one of the speakers having been tasked with delivering a (very specifically timed) 7 minute presentation. This was followed by a Q&A session and panel debate with Geoff Wright, from MADE, and Kay Hughes, from the National Infrastructure Commission, on how city leaders can work with the private sector and the local community to deliver city centres fit for the future. It isn’t a new theme, but one that’s gaining more and more traction. What I was truly pleased to hear was the passionate talks from city leaders in the first half of the event, presenting their particular approaches to leading change in their cities. 

Bradford’s Cllr Alex Ross-Shaw, Portfolio Lead for Regeneration, Planning and Transport was clear about where he saw the public sector’s role: “You have to work in partnership and can’t just expect change to happen, and that means giving up control but giving direction”. Philippa Venables, Head of Strategic Growth and Place for Swindon, built on the theme of partnership and engagement, noting that “residents and business partners need to embrace the vision, know your assets and your people to create a common purpose”. These two quotes succinctly spelled out the change in language that public sector leaders are embracing as closer working between the public sector, the private sector and, crucially, the communities they serve establishes itself as the new model for successful change in towns and cities across the UK. It can be easy to look at other towns and cities that have a clear cultural, tourism or education identity for example, but what was clear from Bradford and Swindon was that they recognised the particular strengths and identities of their own cities and weren’t simply seeking to replicate what others had done. They are unique places with unique purposes.

But what is this “purpose” we crave in our cities? What do we mean when we look to identify that? None described it better than Martin Reeves, Chief Executive for Coventry City Council, who outlined his 5-step approach:

  1. Have an authentic and compelling narrative for your place - asset based not marketing. It’s important to understand your story and what you can be but importantly not to compete with neighbouring towns but to compliment.
  2. Have a coherent strategy – every action should direct back to the strategy in place.
  3. Take a meantime approach - look at EU successes that are out delivering us, Stockholm/Denmark, learn from others wider than your catchment.
  4. Be politically bold and lead - know when to place-make and place-shape, know when it’s areas to protect, let go or develop.
  5. Connection, convergence and systems needs to be a live ecosystem between all sectors to come together for its people

The time when towns and cities were anchored by retail have passed. Instead the future of our centres is a living ecosystem full of connectivity, experience, public realm, education, activities, culture and arts, serving a social and economic purpose in equal measure. Nevertheless, beneath the headlines of growth and prosperity, towns and cities are continuing to struggle with resource, funds and new market conditions – the inevitability of pain in a period of sharp transition.

Councils and their leaders are vital to delivering this change. However, with funding pressures and the full force of central government cuts being realised, it needs to be about more than financial investment in our centres. Some key messages from the city representatives are as follows:

  • Private sector partnerships vital. In Bradford their experience is that “Partnerships move the narrative away from councils as blockers for delivery. BIDS are a great example of where private sector can take the lead in partnership with councils to make the change”.
  • Be proactive in engaging with the private sector, make them familiar with your strategy and illustrate how and where they can be involved in collaboration and delivery.
  • Identify common issues facing you and your neighbours – by working together, local authorities can pitch a united city leadership. “One Yorkshire” and “Midlands UK” being highlighted examples.

The networks created and encouraged through Centre for Cities and others are a great platform to bring leaders together to discuss common purpose, to be brave, to look for different ways to facilitate and deliver change proactively in our towns and cities. Collaboration, resource pooling, identity, partnership and purpose are the watch words!