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What We Learned from Labour

So Number 10 Downing Street has a new resident, from a new party. It’s a little strange for us Anglophilic public policy wonks, since it sometimes feels like Labour is all we’ve ever known. Indeed, Tony Blair became prime minister for the first time just a few months after Bill Clinton’s second inaugural--what now seems like a different eon in America. (And in the U.K., too--Posh and Becks had just met.)

Particularly during eight years in the U.S. federal urban policy wilderness in the 2000s, Labour governments proved consistently aware of the importance of “city-regions” to the national economy. Throughout, Gordon Brown’s Treasury was among the best places in the U.K., and perhaps the world, for advancing an evidence-based approach to promote the economic, physical, and social well-being of cities and their residents.

Back in 2008, we and our partners at the U.K.’s Centre for Cities reflected on what the U.K. could teach the United States about how to build stronger cities and metro areas. Notwithstanding the deep differences in our systems of government, we found much to emulate from their side: 

  • Leaders at the highest levels of the government--Blair, Brown, and Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott--made promoting productivity and enterprise, addressing social exclusion, and physically renewing urban areas high-profile, central goals in Labour’s governing agenda, a use of the bully pulpit that ultimately redounded to the benefit of cities 
  • Gordon Brown essentially did welfare reform right, through “New Deal” employment programs, and more generous in-work tax credits, paid throughout the year to help lower-income families make ends meet (though serious challenges remain with out-of-work male populations) 
  • Planning rules issued by the central government (crazy, I know) stipulated that a certain percentage of new residential and commercial development should occur within existing communities rather than on greenfield sites 
  • Funding to improve cities’ physical and social infrastructure was pooled to give local and regional actors greater flexibility in allocating investments across areas such as skills, business growth, community safety, and public space improvements 
  • Perhaps most impressively, Labour governments commissioned a series of thorough-going policy reviews, many overseen by leaders from the private sector, that helped drive government policy in critical areas such as transportation, housing, economic development, and productivity enhancement.

While on a brief fellowship at the U.K. Treasury in 2004, I was fortunate to brief Gordon Brown on U.S. policies to promote mixed-income, mixed finance public housing. He asked probing questions, and was eager to see if what we had learned in the States could be adapted to address some of the issues in their social housing sector. I remember wishing that Americans were so motivated to borrow the best of what Brown’s Treasury did on issues of importance to cities.

It may yet be that the new ruling Conservative-Lib Dem coalition champions a fresh series of policies that make U.K. cities stronger, such as encouraging directly elected mayors. Nonetheless, it’s with great admiration, and a touch of nostalgia, that we bid farewell to Labour, for now. Be sure to follow our friends at the Centre for Cities, including their director Dermot Finch’s blog, for the latest on how metropolitan policy in the U.K. is shaping up with David Cameron and company at the helm.