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  • Writer's pictureDavid Marlow

Do think tank reports like Cities Outlook contribute to ‘analysis paralysis’, or can they be made operationally relevant?

Updated: Feb 26

For their second Espresso Shot episode of February 2024, David and Mike turn their attention to the 2024 edition of the Cities Outlook report from Centre for Cities and explore how to use think tanks and their reports better.

Think tank researcher presenting to an audience

What makes Cities Outlook 2024 worthy of attention and analysis?

Centre for Cities (CfC) are to be commended for producing a high-profile Cities Outlook each year. This provides both a time series of the performance of 63 Primary Urban Areas (PUAs) of the UK, and normally raises issues that will capture both media and government attention and focus debate.

This year the headline is of long-term ‘Levelling Down’. The UK’s productivity malaise, together with decreases in housing affordability means that, despite strong employment growth in most places, people are on average more than £10,000 per year worse off in Gross Disposable Household Income (GDHI) terms than if key economic trends had continued at 1998-2010 levels over 2010-22.

Add increasing shares of children in poverty and the levelling down proposition is strongly made.

With an impending general election, capturing both inequalities and productivity debates across the 63 primary urban areas is important, and CfC is bold to be so focussed on the relative shortcomings of the post-2010 national government stewardship.

But how can LED and placemaking professionals and policy makers use this report?

Although both David and Mike credit CfC for providing this narrative and analysis on an annual basis, they worry that the ‘heavy lifting’ of actually using it for local policy development and making strategic choices is unclear.

CfC’s recommendations of focusing levelling up on the largest city regions, enhancing devolution, and reforming planning are probably almost universally welcome. But the devil is always going to be in the detail for each of the 63 PUAs (and their neighbours), and the precise priority offers and asks of an incoming government needs significant further granularity.

There’s a lot of useful foundational data – but without major follow up the report runs the risk of ‘analysis paralysis’ discussed in our December 2023 episode with Tom Forth.

What solutions might bridge the gap between CfC-type ‘helicopter’ views and local/regional strategic prioritisation and policy development?

The rise of regional and local ‘policy improvement partnerships’ – some funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) – are incentivising universities to provide knowledge and strategic analysis expertise to local policy makers. Some of these have a long tradition like the former New Economy Manchester, or preceded the UKRI LPIP programme like West Midlands REDI (formerly City REDI). Insights North East and the Yorkshire Universities LPIP are examples with whom David and Mike have connections. Breaking the London/national perspectives and focus of think tanks is valuable. Areas without these capabilities should explore how to improve local access to this sort of expertise with their universities and other knowledge-based institutions.

What are the Think Tanks you most often use for intelligence and insight, and why?

CfC is only one think tank and Cities Outlook is only one of their products – albeit one with longevity and useful data across the 63 PUAs. What other think tanks and reports do you find most valuable in your LED and placemaking work? If there is interest, we can return to this issue in a full guest episode later in the year – so do give us your views and ideas for where the discussion should go next…


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