Who really governs our cities?

DSCN1063A few weeks ago we had a really interesting class discussion about “who governs cities”, all kinds of issues cropped up and were debated, with examples from Bristol, Hong Kong and Ankara. It was a fascinating class conversation that got me thinking about how decisions are really made in our cities and who is in control, and how this plays out in Bristol.

It’s interesting because it may not be as simple and obvious as you first think! Anyway, it’s also the subject of one of this terms essays which I decided against doing, so I thought I’d write a blog about it instead – that way I don’t have to couch everything in academic evidence and argument but can just explore the issues in a simplistic and opinionated manner (as with most of my blogs).

So, have you ever thought about who runs Bristol and how decisions are really made in our city? You might well give a different answer now compared to a few years ago – with a directly elected mayor isn’t it kind of obvious who is in charge and who makes the key decisions that affect what happens locally, who it is that controls policy and exercises political control over the city? Maybe, to a point, and it is certainly clearer now than under previous systems. Our city mayor is a high profile individual, who many in the city have now heard of (compared to previous council leaders) and who does seem to get the blame for most things that people don’t like in the city! However, it is never quite that simple is it? There are of course 70 councillors democratically elected to the city council to represent residents – what’s their role in decision making under this new mayoral system? It’s certainly very different to the old days of committees. To me this seems like an interesting area for research, how has democratic decision making in cities changed as a result of cabinet and scrutiny systems and how is it different under an elected mayor? I covered some of these points in a previous post about the role of local councillors and how it has changed over time.

Of course one also shouldn’t forget the role council officers play in decision making locally, they are after all the paid civil servants advising our mayor and councillors. One only has to look at the recent fiasco over by-laws in parks to see just how powerful and influential officers can be in relation to what gets on the agenda – they nearly got away with that one! Whatever the rights and wrongs of the issue the way in which this happened illustrates how things can and do work in local government.

But back to the issue of central/local control. One of the clear messages to come from the council budget process this year is just how much control central government has over our city. It is national government that is largely imposing the scale and extent of the cuts needed to produce a local balanced budget, the city council and mayor are merely responding to national policy and rules. The room for manoeuvre or flexibility is limited, although I accept there were some options to do things slightly differently. But the main point remains the same, national government has a high degree of control over what happens in Bristol, not just through budgetary control but also national policy, rules, regulations and legislation. As we are frequently reminded, we have one of the most centralised systems in the Western world, with high levels of power residing at national government level rather than devolved and delegated to local democratic structures.

So there are high levels of central control over our city. One of the ways this has manifested itself in the past is through the creation by government of local quangos. Mrs Thatcher was particularly keen on this kind of approach as a means by which she could bypass local government, largely in Labour control, and impose central Tory policy locally without worrying about irritating things like local democracy. The most obvious example of this was the Bristol Urban Development Corporation. This was set up in 1989 to take control of the development process of land around St Philips Marsh and Temple Meads. Much of the current Temple Quay development is still premised on old permissions granted under the UDC, that’s one of the reasons there is such a high level of car parking with each office block and why there is, in my view, no coherence, quality or sense of place to much of what has been developed. The key land use planning and design decisions were taken out of the hands of the local council and given instead to an unelected, appointed body who were more focused on delivery at any cost.

Perhaps the UDCs most significant intervention, and the one that caused the most controversy locally, was the “Spine Road” now called the St Philips Causeway, there was much local opposition to this but with little impact, the road was built, despite the fact that council, local people and environmental groups were opposed to it. The legacy of central control over cities like Bristol is clear to see and it’s not necessarily a positive one, sadly our government don’t seem to be very good at learning the lessons from past mistakes. There is undoubtedly a role for quangos and partnerships in helping to deliver on the aspirations of the city but not at the expense of local input, accountability and engagement, and certainly not where they are merely the ‘puppets’ of central government. We no longer have a UDC in Bristol but we do have a Local Enterprise Partnership – another creation of central government, imposed locally to take decisions out of the control of the Mayor and our local councils. Yes I accept these are ‘partnerships’ and local councils are of course involved, but where does the balance of power really rest and more importantly is it stopping things happening that otherwise our directly elected City Mayor would be delivering on? I’m not suggesting I know the answer to this, merely raising it as an interesting question!

So, we have an elected mayor whose hands are tied by central control over our city even now, but who else might also be influential in what goes on and how decisions are made? The next obvious group to mention is the business community. We have a strong and influential business community in Bristol, which is to be welcomed in many respects, with organisations like the Society of Merchant Venturers and the Chamber of Commerce & Initiative representing many of the big business interests. You only have to look at who chairs the key public bodies in the city, who is on the LEP board and who chairs it, who chairs our Hospital Trusts and who is on the board of our Universities to see that the Merchant Venturers still hold many positions of influence and power in this city – they really are everywhere. I leave it to you to decide and consider whether or not this is a good thing and whether the intentions and interests of these Merchants are likely to reflect the broader interests of Bristol, it’s an interesting point and one that generates many different responses. Whatever your views though, the business community in this city undoubtedly has an influence over how the city is run, decisions taken and possibly more importantly, over decisions that are not taken! Have you ever wondered just why some things don’t get onto the agenda in Bristol or are stopped before they get anywhere?

Our class conversation also skirted around the issue of civic society and the role communities and voluntary organisations have to play in decisions. In Bristol much of this sector has been brought together over the years through VOSCUR, an effective coordinating body for many voluntary and community organisations in the city. Indeed, Bristol has quite a tradition of community “activism”, both spatially and topic based, playing a key role in helping to create the diverse and vibrant city we live in. Again, the extent to which these groups, organisations and communities really help to shape decision making in our city is debatable and people will undoubtedly have different views. But they exist in large numbers and engage in city decision making, so to some extent have an influence.

So the answer to “who governs Bristol” is complex, there are many different actors involved in decision making both formally and informally with different constraints and opportunities and with different degrees of transparency and openness. So how do we really know who is most influential? Can we tell by simply looking at outcomes and identifying who benefits from them most, who gets what they want from decisions in Bristol? Again, not a simple question to answer, and it will undoubtedly depend on what decisions you are referring to and how easy it is to identify who does actually benefit.

Perhaps the biggest and most significant question to ask is – does it matter? Do we need to know? If we did, then at least we would know who to blame or who we should seek to influence. Or do we need to know so we can understand why things are the way they are? To my mind, we need to understand as best we can so we can seek to change things for the better. However, this understanding is clouded by lack of transparency, lack of clarity, secrecy about how things are done, undemocratic structures, central control and lack of equity in engagement. A complex area with clear and obvious implications for how our cities work and how decisions are taken – I’m sure each of us can think of many examples where a decision has been made, that impacts on us, but where we can’t quite see how the decision makers ever got to that decision or why! Or we can think of examples of things that just haven’t happened or haven’t been discussed openly, but can’t quite work out why not.

That’s the power of influence wherever it comes from and that’s why we need to understand it!

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8 thoughts on “Who really governs our cities?

  1. I like the way your articles are written so the “lay-person” (that’s me) can understand them. Influence lies with the money, and the money lies with the business community. Not just the way of Bristol, but sadly, the way of the World!

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  2. The decisions seem to be made by the elected representatives, unless the people with the most money disagree.
    It’d would be nice if all decisions were made by the majority of people it affects, but then I’m an idealist.
    I’d like to see the most power going to the local people, then places like Scotland could say they’re being represented by the people in power. As opposed to a Tory government they didn’t vote for.

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  3. The role of consultants shouldn’t be under estimated. They often provide the ‘technical analysis’ behind project recommendations (esp transport) but very few people actually understand the assumptions behind the analysis, and it is rare for the analysis to be challenged by elected representatives. Also the government is very prescriptive in the way it forces local authorities to appraise transport schemes so that only certain types of schemes can win. Lay this in top of the power of unelected Local Enterprise Partnerships and local democracy starts to look very weak.

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  4. Pingback: .@golfmangosierra @OwenJones84 we should launch de… | Bristol Festival of Ideas

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