Speaking on Day Two of the CBI's Urban Revival conference, Lord Bilimoria acknowledged that urban revival is not a simple process - but the size of the prize makes it worth understanding what's at stake, and what can be achieved through collaboration.
And welcome back to day two of the CBI’s Urban Revival conference.
When I came to the UK from India in the early 1980’s for my further education, Britain was known as the ‘sick man of Europe’. And our cities were quite frankly pretty run down. With some even down and out.
Fast-forward to today and so many of those cities are far more vibrant, happening, and attractive places to live, work and invest in.
London is the greatest of the world’s great cities.
And whether you go to Birmingham or Manchester, Edinburgh, or Cardiff, these are all now truly exciting and thriving cities.
In fact, just a few weeks ago, one of Birmingham’s most significant public spaces, Chamberlain Square has reopened – as the final part of the first phase of a £700m Paradise scheme at the heart of the city.
Joseph Chamberlain, the founder of the university of Birmingham – where I am proud to be Chancellor – would be very proud!
That’s urban revival in action.
And that’s exactly what we’re here to talk about today. Looking at the future of transport, net zero, cities around the world, and everything in between.
And there’s rarely been a more important time for this topic.
During the pandemic – our formerly vibrant, bustling towns and cities, have been under siege. Echoing silent, deserted.
And for many businesses, and many people, the past twelve months have been harder than any in our lifetimes.
But we now face a fork in the road.
As we emerge from this crisis, do we seize this chance – this duty to build back our urban spaces and highstreets stronger and more resilient than ever before?
Or do we carry on – in autopilot, hoping for the best?
Reviving cities post-COVID
If we choose to act, urban revival must begin with our path out of lockdown.
The road back won’t be easy.
But there is now a light at the end of the tunnel.
With ‘exit roadmaps’ giving firms – after a year of uncertainty, and stop-start restrictions – that crucial ability to plan.
For business, that’s everything.
We also have so many more tools than we did 12 months ago: mass testing, vaccines, repurposed therapeutics & drugs and covid-secure expertise.
And of course, we had the Budget. Where the Chancellor launched measure after measure to help cushion the landing for firms. An extended Job Retention Scheme. A recovery loan scheme. Restart grants. Extended business rates holidays.
Many of these – the result of hard-fought CBI campaigns.
Now, we also need a laser focus on helping our high streets, towns, and cities bounce back long-term. Using every single weapon in our armoury to catalyse investment.
And if there’s one policy fix we’d really like to see now, it’s for the Treasury to deliver on reforming business rates in the Autumn.
The business rates system is one of our biggest levers for growth. But here in the UK, the burden of property tax is higher than any other G7 country.
It means that when international investors come knocking on our door, they have a reason to invest elsewhere.
And crucially, the current system actually disincentivises investment in the kind of net-zero building upgrades we need. Like solar panels, or energy efficient heating. Holding back our cities, our businesses, and our economy.
Now our rates system demands – not sticking plaster reforms, but a fundamental rethink. As the foundation for our recovery from this pandemic and growth in the future.
Of course, COVID has also impacted the way we live and work.
With hybrid offices, more home working, and less commuting. It could improve the work-life balance for many.
And we’ve witnessed a technological earthquake. Enhancing our quality of life.
But not for all. We face gaps in digital illiteracy, digital poverty, and digital access. So while it seems hybrid working will remain the norm, we now need to use covid as a spur – to close the digital divide.
In November last year the government went back on its ambition for 100% broadband coverage by 2025 to 85%. Now, more than ever, that ambition needs to be re-instated. And ensure the benefits of technology are felt by all.
The long-term challenge
But, as any CEO will tell you – these immediate challenges aren’t the whole story.
Even before COVID too many of our brilliant towns and cities here in the UK were already struggling.
Globally, more and more of us are moving to live and work in urban areas. Pulled by the jobs, the people, and possibilities that they offer.
In the 1950s, only 750 million people lived in urban centres. In 2018, that number rose to 4.2 billion.
In fact, the proportion of the global population living in cities surpassed 50% in 2007 and is projected to rise to 68% by 2050.
It’s even one of the UN’s ‘Sustainable Development’ goals – to make cities “inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable”.
But this trend brings with it uncertainty. Extra demand on resources and services. On our housing, our transport, our energy systems. Pressure on schools and hospitals.
And while this density has long been our biggest challenge, it’s also our biggest strength. Forcing us to think afresh. Turning our towns and cities into the crucibles of invention.
Just look at our history. It was urban growth that led the Romans to create aqueducts. Solving the problem of access to fresh water.
It was urban growth that led the Victorians to perfect sanitation systems. That helped eradicate cholera and typhoid in the UK.
We’ve always faced these pressure points. And we’ve always overcome them.
But today, once again, our society has reached such a moment. When the triple forces – of climate change, advances in technology, and the possibility of another major health crisis – all challenge us to reimagine our urban spaces.
Because if there’s one thing COVID has taught us, it’s that we don’t know what’s around the corner.
So now the imperative is on us, as businesses not only to adapt to these forces. But to foresee them – and take a lead in shaping our own future.
Paving the way to healthier, smarter, greener cities. Providing the strong transport links, good jobs, and vibrant communities people want.
We know there are no quick fixes. It will take collaboration – between experts and communities on the ground.
But working together, with industry, and local government we know that - out there - are plenty of ideas and lessons we can look to.
So this morning, I want to share with you three of the big opportunities facing towns and cities to spark our discussions today. And to help us reimagine what’s possible if we’re to make our cities healthier, smarter, and greener.
Let me start with that first challenge: making cities healthier. Creating urban spaces that allow us to live longer, fuller lives.
We all know there are lessons to learn from the past year and how our towns and cities have responded to COVID.
And as a commissioner of the University of Oxford Healthy Cities Commission, chaired by my Cross Bench colleague Lord Best alongside Kellogg College, Oxford - where I am proud to be a Bynam Tudor Fellow - and the Prince’s Foundation… we’re looking at the links between urban design and the risks of disease outbreaks and other serious threats to health and wellbeing.
Thinking about what shape urbanisation should take in the future.
Using the World Health Organisation’s definition of a healthy city: one that is “continually creating and improving those physical and social environments and expanding those community resources which enable people to mutually support each other in performing all the functions of life and developing to their maximum potential”.
And we’ll be forming recommendations at every level:
- At the international level…
- National level…
- City level…
- Neighbourhood level…
- And the individual citizen level.
Our work has just started. We’ll be aiming to issue a final report – and recommendations in early in 2022.
And I hope it’s one of the themes we’ll talk about today.
Second, is smarter cities. Using tech, and data, to make our lives easier.
We’ve seen great examples of this already.
Like Hull City Council. Who, a few years ago, partnered with Cisco and Connexin to make Hull the first ‘smart’ city in the UK. Using data to integrate everything – from traffic flows to parking, recycling, and street lighting into a single, co-ordinated system. How amazing.
But we also know that, in some parts of the country we’ve got a long way to go.
In London, for example. The city ranks 41st in the UK for digital connectivity. And over a quarter of Londoners have an internet speed slower than 30 megabits per second.
A huge challenge – but also an opportunity for business.
To borrow a great example from the country I was born in. Just look at India – and Prime Minister Modi’s plan to create 100 new smart cities. Part of a $1.5trn global market opportunity.
Essentially, using a network of sensors, cameras, wireless devices, and data centres to improve the delivery of water, electricity, sanitation, education – everything you can imagine.
And one of the most ingenious ‘smart’ solutions is in transport.
At the CBI, our commuting research shows UK drivers lose an average of 178 hours a year, sitting in traffic. At a cost of almost £8bn. An average of £1,300 per driver.
And in 2019, 34% of UK carbon dioxide emissions came from transport. It’s almost dystopian.
In fact, it was the writer, Edward Bryant, who said: “If this were 1890 – it would take an inventor to predict the automobile and a visionary to predict highways and gas stations. But it would take a science fiction writer to predict the traffic jam.”
He was right of course.
But now, smart cities can actually prevent traffic jams. With street light sensors, road signals, and smart meters providing real-time data: predicting queues suggesting quicker routes or helping commuters switch to public transport – showing when the next bus or train is due, down to the minute.
Imagine if that was possible in every part of the UK. How much time it would save us and how much it would add to our economy.
Also making the most of our cybersecurity expertise. With international smart cities holding great potential for UK businesses to win contracts too.
Finally, I want to talk about greener cities.
We know the climate emergency demands of us a seismic change. And there are some brilliant urban areas, leading the way tackling pollution, innovating in clean energy, winning the race to net zero.
But without action, some cities risk falling behind.
The Institute for Urban Strategies ranks London 14th in the world for overall environment quality. And 35th for urban cleanliness. Well behind cities like Singapore and Tokyo.
In fact – as of December 2018, London declared itself in a climate emergency. Along with dozens of others – from Barnsley to Blackpool.
And there are three big components to making our built environment greener: Energy, transport, and heating.
In energy, we’ve gone from total dependency on coal, eight years ago to using none for weeks at a time.
And innovating in carbon capture and storage, doubling down on efforts, as the UK prepares to host the UN’s climate summit, COP26, in Glasgow later this year.
There’s a way to go – but we’re getting there.
In transport, manufacturers like Nissan and Jaguar Land Rover are helping us switch to electric vehicles.
And there are brilliant towns & cities in the UK already leading. Like Aberdeen, the world’s first city to have hydrogen double decker buses.
Or Birmingham. Where, last year, Birmingham University’s Centre for Railway Research, a Queen’s-Award-Winning institution, developed the UK’s first hydrogen powered train.
A great step – showing the ingenuity of business.
And at the CBI, we're calling for the government to build more green infrastructure – on time and on budget.
Projects like Crossrail, HS2, Northern Powerhouse Rail.
Helping us get around, while meeting our net zero ambitions.
Finally, in heating, I am very proud of the CBI’s work with the Heat Commission, which I was proud to Chair – alongside the University of Birmingham to help decarbonise UK homes and businesses.
We know heat makes up over one-third of carbon emissions. Over half of that comes from buildings.
But tackling this isn’t only about what we build in the future.
In fact, new buildings add only 1% per year to the nation’s 29 million homes.
Rather, it’s about regeneration and retrofitting – using for example heat pumps, hydrogen and community heating.
Investment in energy efficiency – not just for net zero, but also, as a way to tackle fundamental aspects of poverty and inequality while reducing NHS and social care costs.
All these innovations – at scale – could make a real difference.
Models from history
So those are just three ambitions. Healthier, smarter, greener urban spaces.
Of course, it won’t be easy. And it can’t be done by business alone. But sometimes, we forget just how much of a difference enterprise can make.
Going back in history – look at the amazing townships of the early 20th century. Cadbury’s Bourneville. Rowntree’s New Earswick. Leverhulme’s Port Sunlight. Or more recently - the Duchy of Cornwall’s Poundbury.
And in India the City of Jamshedpur, created by the Tatas, around India’s first steel factory.
Entire communities formed around business – with companies that really looked after their workers and their families. And valuing – not just functionality but the aesthetics of a built environment. Gardens, and beautiful public spaces. And harmonious design – homes that inspire people, and don’t diminish them.
These should all be an inspiration to us.
Finally, I just want to acknowledge that Urban Revival is not a simple process.
And I think it’s important to take a totally holistic view of how we understand our towns and cities. Not just thinking about our physical spaces. But things like diversity. Mental and physical wellbeing. Access to open space, access to culture. Our ageing population. Social care. Pollution. Design. Postcode inequality. Deprivation, income poverty. Resilience.
These are all issues to consider.
And there’s a fantastic report by the Quality of Life Foundation. About how to measure the success of our cities. Not only in economic value, or GDP, but things like nature, wonder, movement, and belonging. Our capacity for playfulness, imagination, community, and building a strong sense of place.
So that’s what I’d like to end on.
Remembering the real value of our cities. That’s what I hope we can achieve together.
And I hope you have a brilliant conference.