UK cities and regions are rethinking their future. Here’s how.

2024 is election year. More people are due to vote this year than in history, with nearly half of the global population heading to the polls. As of July 1st, 1 billion people worldwide had already cast their ballot in what has been termed a ‘make-or-break year for democracy.’

This frenzy of elections comes at a time of severe environmental, social, and political upheaval, and it is no different in the United Kingdom, which looks set to see the end of 14 years of leadership by the Conservative party.

In the face of this reshaping of the political landscape, there is a real opportunity for cities and regions across the UK to redefine the role they play in the development of our country. “We need to ensure our cities and towns are part of national and regional conversations,” shared Maria Manion, CEO of Cambridge BID, when we asked what she considered to be the biggest opportunity facing UK places. “Solid and sustainable economic and social growth only occurs when conversations and policies are approached cohesively.”

So, what can UK cities and regions do?


Reversing the trend for centralised decision-making

‘Levelling up’ was the phrase-du-jour of the last election. However, several years on, much of the funding is still tied up, and there are reports that what has been released has disproportionately benefited people living in Conservative constituencies or in ultra-marginal seats. Looking forward, more cities and regions are calling for greater control in determining their own futures.

“Our economy is now being transformed through innovation intensive economic clusters in health and life sciences, digital and creative, and advanced manufacturing,” highlighted Kirsty McLean, Executive Director – Policy, Strategy, and Government Relations for Liverpool City Region Combined Authority.

The solution to this? A long-term financial settlement and developed responsibilities that would allow the region to ensure that any investment directly benefited their residents. “With a new relationship with Government based on devolution not centralisation, we would have the opportunity to create the right conditions for innovation to thrive, our economy to grow and everyone to benefit.”


Tackling the climate crisis with private-public partnerships

Our urban centres are at the heart of the climate challenge, and are responsible for about 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions. However, this also means that cities and regions are the key to reversing the damage done.

Adam Bryan, Director of Place for Medway Council, suggested that “from the ashes of the erstwhile Local Enterprise Partnerships, [the new] Government could reignite public-private collaboration, specifically around the green economy and meeting our climate challenge.”

In particular, Adam called for more collaboration between cities, regions, businesses, and academia to drive the necessary innovation and skills development for a climate-positive future. The desire for partnership is there. Nine in ten businesses are calling for more support in meeting decarbonisation targets. The CEO of the Confederation of British Industry [CBI] has similarly warned that the next government “can’t be pro-growth and deliver for our people and communities, without being pro-green.”

Take London, for example. While there is undeniably work to be done, the city is also taking great strides to reduce its air pollution. The controversial Ultra Low Emission Zones have reduced the levels of harmful roadside pollutants in central London by nearly half. Meanwhile, the Santander bike scheme is an excellent example of how the public and private sector can partner around greener initiatives.

 

Rethinking place-based storytelling

As well as driving investment in greener projects, cities and regions need to rethink how they can embed sustainability into their tourism positioning. “An emerging trend focuses on ‘cool tourism’,” outlined Alex Harvie, Head of Marketing, Communications, & Destination Marketing at Glasgow Life. “This is not being ‘cool' as in fashionable, which may have occupied the minds of place branding experts in the past, but ‘cool’ as a respite from the heat spikes being experienced in other countries.”

At the City Nation Place Global conference last November, we heard from Per Grankvist, Chief Storyteller for Viable Cities. Viable Cities aims to support a number of Swedish cities in becoming climate-neutral by 2030. Part of their approach focuses on the need for cities to re-think how they talk about the future. We have a tendency to fall into jargon – particularly when talking about sustainability, where terms like climate-neutral and net-zero emissions abound.

“Facts are overrated when it comes to convincing people,” Per explained in his keynote presentation. “Making people feel that something is emotionally true, locally relevant, and scientifically correct is a better approach. But if you’re in a hurry, just focus on the emotional experience.”


Embracing your authentic reality

The way that people connect with their places has changed, but as our high streets evolve to be more experiential, places have an opportunity to put their individuality in the spotlight.

“This shift to people seeking experiences and ‘a life well lived’ has provided an opportunity in Staffordshire for us to embrace our uniqueness,” outlined Louisa Shaw, Head of Place Marketing at We Are Staffordshire, highlighting a new circus school that has open and its links to Philip Astley, Newcastle-based founder of the circus, as an example of embedding their identify in their place strategy.

However, you can’t create your identity out of thin air. It has to be part of the lived reality of your community – and that means you need to be collaborating with those who are creating your place each and every day.

“Working in collaboration, not only with local authorities, but with local businesses and attractions, charities, community groups, education providers, and other stakeholders means that everyone shapes our place, and celebrates our uniqueness and our authenticity with one voice,” Louisa continued.

 

Cambridge BID’s Maria Manion, Glasgow Life’s Alex Harvie, Liverpool City Region Combined Authority’s Kirsty McLean, Medway Council’s Adam Bryan, and We Are Staffordshire’s Louisa Shaw, will all be taking the stage at City Nation Place UK this September 18-19thCheck out the full agenda here to learn more


The Place Brand Portfolio is City Nation Place's searchable portfolio of Awards case studies from the past five years.

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