The living standards challenge facing the Metro Mayor

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There was an event in Bristol recently to discuss a newly published report by the Resolution Foundation – “A Western Union: living standards and devolution in the West of England“. This report discusses the living standards challenge facing the soon to be elected West of England Metro Mayor. It’s a report that sets out the statistics demonstrating the gaps between pay and productivity, wages and house prices/rents and geographically between areas of South Bristol and Bath compared to the rest of the city region. It also highlights how low earners and single parents have faired the worst since the recession. It sets out very clearly what we already know, and have know for some time, that the West of England is a relatively prosperous city region. We faired pretty well during the recession and our recovery since has been rapid, but we face particular challenges some borne out of that success and some more entrenched in the very nature of our city region.

Ask anyone what the issues are for the West of England and housing will likely be pretty close to the top of their list (alongside transport). The challenge here is huge compared to other city regions, house prices are at least 10 times higher than the typical salary, there’s a lower proportion of people living in social rented accommodation and an increasing number reliant on private renting. Rents in the West of England are now 38% higher than in other city regions, making up 41% of the typical gross monthly salary, that’s an insane amount.

The other major challenge identified in the West of England is the distribution of economic success. On average household incomes are higher in our city region than they are in most others, as are employment rates, but these average figures hide a number of significant divides and inequalities demonstrating that not everyone has shared in this relative success. The rise in productivity is not being translated into increasing pay and it is the lower paid workers who have faired less well in recent years. The post-crisis pay squeeze has been felt most by low to middle earners in the West of England.

Anyway, back to the event itself. There was a panel including Conor D’Arcy from the Resolution Foundation; the Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees; Jaya Chakrabarti of Nameless Media; and John Savage from the Chamber of Commerce. After an initial introduction to the report from Conor, the other participants then set out what they thought were the key challenges facing the new metro mayor and what the role entailed. There was relative agreement about the role itself, with some concerns expressed about the central imposition of this new metro mayor on our area, but also general acceptance that is was going to happen therefore we had to make the most of it.

The participants each covered a range of issues with Marvin setting out how he thought we should be talking about behaviours rather than structures and that the role was about collaboration, emotional intelligence and complementary sovereignty. The difficult task would be to find shared priorities given the diversity of the patch. Jaya talked about the need for civic leadership and how this could work at a city region level before going on to raise concerns about in-work poverty and how this is a key issue across our area. John reminded us about the inequalities across our divided city region and how these included the same areas as those of 10/20 years ago, leaving the same people behind decade after decade. He outlined how he thought the role of the metro mayor was an enabling one, which would undoubtedly be hindered by the leadership of some of the constituent authorities.

The discussion that followed was varied and initially picked up on the housing crisis and the problems young people were experiencing across the city region, with the need to build more affordable homes emphasised as well as the need to control rents and improve the security of private sector tenancies. There was also a debate about sovereignty, centralisation and power distribution, with most agreeing that the relationship between government and local councils was more like a parent/child relationship, with the government in control. The need for a structural and cultural rebalancing of sovereignty was stressed, with the point made that devolution seemed to be about devolution of austerity rather than power and that for city regions to succeed in addressing inequalities there needed to be more resource as well as responsibility passed down by government. It was suggested that cities also needed to be proactive, setting out how they want to solve their own problems, then they are likely to receive more support from government to enable those solutions.

One of the concerns raised was regarding the different levels of governance and areas covered and how these would work together. Clearly with North Somerset not included as part of the West of England Combined Authority or as part of the metro mayor area, this presents some challenges, given they are part of the Local Enterprise Partnership area. Other anomalies were also identified, with Bath and North East Somerset included in a different Health Partnership Area and a different Housing Market Area. Working across the area is complex and developing shared agendas a real challenge.

The Resolution Foundation report makes three main recommendations on priority areas for the new metro mayor:

  • Become Britain’s first full employment city – further progress could be made on boosting employment rates in deprived parts of the West of England and for single parents to edge close to that goal of full employment.
  • Boost pay for low and middle earners – the Metro Mayor should act as convenor to encourage productivity-raising responses to the National Living Wage as well as promoting uptake of the voluntary Living Wage.
  • Build more affordable homes – affordable housing should be front and centre of the combined efforts from local leaders, with a key role for the Metro Mayor to drive through the process of implementing the Joint Spatial Plan to deliver new homes.

These priorities, along with developing shared agendas and collaborating across the city region and with Whitehall and Westminster are what this new role is all about. Despite the perceived lack of powers and resource there is a glimmer of an opportunity that needs to be taken. The candidates are currently being announced and the election for the first Metro Mayor takes place in May this year. Given there are no other local elections this year it will certainly be interesting to see if this election will manage to grab the attention of the voters and what the turnout will be.

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West of England Devolution

cropped-cropped-rivers-of-gold51.jpgThe announcement in the Budget that the West of England had signed a devolution deal with Government came as a bit of a surprise to many. This was partially because the deals have been shrouded in so much secrecy that even many of our local politicians didn’t know what was happening and what would be included, let alone the local residents. It was also a bit of a surprise when you consider the general level of local opposition to the notion of a combined authority and a metro-mayor. This opposition has been pretty much unanimous amongst local politicians, with few supporting the idea of a city-region mayor, and most suggesting that current, informal arrangements are sufficient and that there is no need for any form of formal structure. So definitely surprising to see that all four leaders have signed up to a deal that includes arrangements for a metro-mayor and combined authority structure.

There are a number of questions that initially spring to my mind when considering this whole devolution agenda. Firstly, if we weren’t part of it would it matter? Secondly, is what’s included worth it? Thirdly, is this the right structure for our area? Lastly, what’s missing? I’ll take these questions in turn and share my thoughts.

So to begin, would it matter if we hadn’t agreed a deal and if when this deal is taken to each of the four local councils for agreement it all falls apart, do we care? Which, let’s face it, given the initial response from some quarters is quite likely. North Somerset have already made it pretty clear they don’t agree and don’t feel their area benefits enough from the deal and the MP for North East Somerset has clearly stated that he is firmly opposed to any such deal with the structure imposed by his own government. One of the important issues to consider here is where else has signed devolution deals. The government’s aim was to have all the Core Cities signed up to deals with a metro-mayor and combined authority in place. So far, Sheffield, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Newcastle and Cardiff have signed deals whilst negotiations are continuing in Nottingham and Leeds. So if Bristol were not to be part of this process we might well lose out in comparison to other key cities in England and Wales. By lose out I mean both competitively and in terms of perception. So it just might matter, we would lose the extra funding on offer and suffer a further loss of credibility with government, something this area has suffered from for many years.

My second question was is the deal worth it? Is there enough in this deal to make it worthwhile accepting an imposed structure that has little support locally (although to be fair there has been little real public debate about this)? The content of the deal covers transport, housing, planning, skills and business support, key issues that arguably need a more strategic approach, across local council boundaries. It brings in extra resources, around £30m a year for thirty years and extra powers to decide things locally around transport, adult education and employment support. It also opens up a more positive dialogue with government about future powers and resources, that might not be on offer otherwise. So in terms of the first two questions then I can understand why the deal has been done, we don’t want to lose out and this is the only option on offer, so we probably do need to be part of it.

The question of structure seems to be the one everyone is focused on. Is a metro-mayor right for the West of England when we already have a Bristol mayor? Is a combined authority needed? To some degree the question is pointless as Osborne made it very clear from the start of this process that devolution deals for cities would have to agree to this structure, it’s an issue that didn’t appear to be up for debate. So if we want the deal we have to accept the structure. Whatever the rights and wrongs and irony of a devolution process that imposes a structure, that is all that’s on offer. Other cities have been equally reticent about agreeing to the idea of a metro-mayor and combined authority, but in order to progress their devolution deal they have accepted it (reluctantly) as part of the process. It seems we will have to do the same.

Personally I think there are some merits in the approach and would certainly advocate the need for a combined authority. Whilst we have had an informal structure for some time, it is less than effective. At the moment, decisions made by the LEP or Strategic Leaders Board have to go back to each of the four local authorities for formal approval, a process that can take months. So a formal structure that cuts out that process has to be good for speeding up decision making. It will also have a focus on strategic issues, something much needed round here.

The issue of a metro-mayor is perhaps more controversial. How would this strategic mayor work with the Bristol mayor? Would there be overlaps of role and confusion as a result? I’m not against the idea personally as I believe that two strong leadership roles promoting our city and city region has to be a good thing and can only benefit the area in the long run, but I can understand why some might be opposed to it.

My final question was about what’s missing from the deal, what more could we have included if only the process had been a little more collaborative, open and transparent? The point about transparency came through very strongly in relation to some research I was involved in as part of a Political Studies Association Research Commission which looked at informal governance as part of the devolution process. The research found that many areas had very real concerns about the lack of openness during the process and the lack of engagement of other politicians and stakeholders was a concern that those involved thought might lead to problems later on. The issue here is about ownership, if you don’t involve people in the process they don’t have any ownership of the output. So one would expect some local politicians, as elected representatives, to have concerns about the content of deals and the process by which they have been agreed. For me it also seems a shame that the process excluded people who might just have provided some interesting and useful ideas to the content of bids.

Looking at the issues that really matter in the West of England and those that need a level of strategic thinking to provide workable solutions, then the bid covers the most obvious broad areas, although health is currently missing from the equation. However, when looking at what is contained one could ask a few questions about how limited the content is. Why haven’t we been more bold in our asks?

If I just look at the whole issue of housing, a major problem in the West of England that we have failed to address strategically for many years. The proposals in the deal are based around a fund to support infrastructure, stronger strategic planning powers and development corporations to overcome barriers to development. These seem pretty good on paper and the infrastructure fund is certainly to be welcomed, providing additional funds and also long term certainty against which borrowing can take place.

The notion of Mayoral Development Corporations is an interesting one. Bristol doesn’t exactly have fond memories of its own Development Corporation. But if these can help to unblock strategic sites to deliver housing then it’s a good call, as long as the process doesn’t trample all over local representatives and local communities as their predecessors did.

But what else could have been included to help deal with the housing crisis in our area? Is there much that local councils can actually do given the central policy we are working within? Well, yes maybe. All you have to do is look around at some of the innovative ideas being tried elsewhere to see that there are other options. How about asking government if we could suspend the right to buy on council properties across the patch or in certain areas, or even just for new build council housing? Why not, parts of Wales have? How about taxing developers for stalled sites, charging them a tax on unbuilt properties, could this have been included? What about commitments to use more public land to build affordable and social housing, releasing councils from the need to secure the best price for land? The problem with many of these devolution deals is that they have involved a small number of people in a rushed process, so has been little time for creative thinking or even the sharing of ideas. Maybe, now the deal is done, other things can be added?

I’ll end on a final note that has bugged me all throughout the process of debate about devolution in the West of England and that is the constant reference to recreating Avon. As far as I can see we are not setting up a County Structure with politicians and officers in a massive bureaucracy. What is proposed is one additional politician – the metro-mayor, and some form of supporting infrastructure around a Combined Authority. Perhaps for the purposes of debate it would be useful for our political leaders to elaborate on this and share thoughts on what that structure might look like, how many people (if any) it would employ and how much it would cost. All this talk of Avon makes people think about something very different and expensive, instead we should be thinking about a new structure that can help strategic delivery.

 

Constraints on growth – what’s holding our cities back?

cropped-rivers-of-gold.jpgGrowing our successful cities is very much the topic of debate at the moment. With discussions about devolution, combined authorities, metro-mayors and growing the economy, cities are the centre of attention for much of our future planning and aspirations. One of the key question that emerges from this debate is whether or not cities are up to the challenge. In some areas, such as Manchester, Birmingham, and Leeds we can see the challenge being welcomed and responses to government demands met pretty quickly. In other areas, perhaps where growth is already positive and complacency the order of the day, then responses are slower, more deliberate and less positive. The recent report by IPPR and Shelter “Growing Cities” takes a look at four growing cities identified as being held back by chronic housing pressures – York, Cambridge, Oxford and Bristol. For anyone living in and around Bristol, the fact that Bristol features will come as no surprise, we’ve been struggling with how to deliver housing growth for many years. The report discusses the need for better tools and powers to enable cities to build more homes with local support – this is about better planning, not less planning as is the popular call of our current government. The report identifies four main areas where change is needed:

  • Co-operation across local authority boundaries
  • Unlocking stalled sites
  • New models of development
  • Overcoming the limits of growth: green belts

These issues have consistently been identified by research and reports as limiting housing growth, but whilst solutions have been offered few have actually been adopted, at least not ones that make any noticeable difference. So, what would addressing each of these issues mean in the Bristol area and how likely is it that things will actually change? I’ll take each issue in turn and discuss some of the points raised by the report and how they could play out in this area. Firstly, co-operation across local authority boundaries is something that has been discussed endlessly in the Bristol city region and I have blogged about before – see “the devolution debate”  a mayor for greater Bristol” and “a confusion of governance“. In particular, the idea of co-operating on housing growth seems to be something that Bristol and its neighbouring authorities have a real problem with. Bristol and South Gloucestershire as a successful economic hub have to some degree focused on how and where to deliver housing growth, and to some extent seem to be able to work together on aspects of this process. The same could not be true across Bristol’s southern border, into North Somerset, where the whole idea of housing growth seems to generate only negative comment and response. Indeed in the latest issue of North Somerset Life (the council’s own regular newsletter for residents) the council leader, Nigel Ashton, once more took the opportunity to rant about housing:

“We are waiting for the Secretary of State to make a final decision on the number of homes we will forced to allow developers to build between now and 2026. At the moment it looks like 21,000 which we think is too many. At the same time, we have tentative estimates from regional discussions which will decide how many more dwellings we will have to provide in the next planning period of another ten years, up to 2036. North Somerset’s share could be another 15,000. This is all because the Government listens to developers’ views of the need for more dwellings, not the local authority.”

An interesting take on how his own Government assesses housing need and demand! One of the critical issues about this debate is that North Somerset Council (NSC) refuse to acknowledge that they have any role in providing housing to support the needs of the city region. Their only concern is to provide sufficient housing for North Somerset residents and not the ‘overspill’ associated with Bristol. So, it is safe to say, that unless sensible housing numbers are imposed on NSC, they will do little to co-operate with Bristol on housing matters. This is a situation exacerbated by the ridiculously tight boundaries surrounding the city and the fact that most of the land for expansion is outside of the control of Bristol city council. The idea suggested in the Growing Cities report is for greater incentives for co-operation and increased penalties where that doesn’t happen. The idea of setting up a Joint Strategic Planning Authority and a Local Homes Agency to provide strategic direction and pro-active planning is a good one and something that is much needed in the Bristol city region.

The second point about stalled sites is also critical. To date, what seems to have happened with too many of the stalled sites in Bristol is that permissions have been re-negotiated and development supported at the cost of affordable housing provision. So anything that changes this current imbalance of power away from developers holding all the cards, and back to local councils who do want to kick start development, has got to be a good starting point. Changing the powers within the planning system to enable councils to unblock sites in favour of quicker development could work, but you need a willing council to begin with.

The third suggestion is about providing power to local councils to proactively drive new large scale development through the designation of New Homes Zones (NHZ). Large sites in this country take decades to develop from start to finish. One of the important aspects of this approach is the freezing of land values (plus an element of compensation) as soon as the NHZ is designated which would generate significantly increased ability to provide for new affordable homes, infrastructure and services. In Bristol, within the council boundary, there would be little opportunity to designate such a NHZ as the land is just not available, but on the outskirts in NSC or South Gloucestershire, the potential is there but would it be realised?

The final suggestion is about encouraging sensible ways to grow our cities with urban extensions close to existing city boundaries. In Bristol this is not a new idea, the much maligned Regional Spatial Strategy proposed several urban extensions to the city, particularly to the south east and south west of the city. These extensions would inevitably be in what is currently designated as green belt around the city. But just consider the alternative, we continue to build on every possible site in the city, with all the consequent problems and issues for quality of life that this brings, or we jump the green belt and provide for unsustainable settlements further away from our cities. Surely a re-assessment of our green belt is needed? The Growing Cities report suggests setting  up Green Belt Community Trusts to help strike a better balance and identify the possibility of building small, sustainable suburbs or extensions where infrastructure already exists. Another good suggestion, but it is one that requires a significant change of attitude.

The Growing Cities report is full of good suggestions and ideas, and practical solutions that could indeed make a difference. However, to make the change and deliver the homes that are needed will require a significant change of attitude, perception and willingness on the part of local politicians, planners and communities. Otherwise, we will continue to see the resistance to change, growth and development that have plagued the area for decades. That leadership and direction needs to come from the Bristol Mayor, the other council leaders,  the Local Enterprise Partnership and from local communities themselves. Sadly, evidence from some quarters on the desire for change is somewhat lacking. Perhaps it’s time for politicians and partnerships to step up to the challenge before it’s too late?

A confusion of governance?

DSCN0141Devolution, cross border partnerships, growth deals and city region plans seem to be in the news just lately, but what does it all mean for our cities? Will these new deals and partnerships really make much difference or are they just an added confusion to the story of local governance? In Bristol the story is a particularly complicated one. With tight administrative city boundaries, Bristol is reliant on partnership working to get things done around transport, infrastructure, housing and growth. It can’t do it alone.

Some years ago, once the county of Avon was abolished, public/private partnerships were set up to work across the old county area on strategic issues. One of those, the West of England Strategic Partnership, has now been reformed into the West of England Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), to meet government requirements for partnerships focused on growth and jobs. This brings together the 4 councils that cover the old Avon area – Bristol, South Gloucestershire, North Somerset and Bath & North East Somerset. Seems there was some sense to the old County area after all? Things seem to muddle along in this partnership, despite the antipathy between the councils and the different political line ups across them. But does this level of governance really work when it is merely based on voluntary partnership? Does it work when the city of Bristol is the driving force? And can it continue to work with all the different approaches to local governance stretching across the 4 councils?

To illustrate this, just consider the challenges now Bristol has a new system with an elected mayor, but the other 3 councils don’t. South Gloucestershire has retreated to the old committee system of governance, whilst the other 2 councils retain the leader with cabinet and scrutiny split. That’s 3 different styles of local governance operating across the 4 councils. Now consider the political make up of those councils. Bristol, having lurched around from Labour to Liberal Democrat and back again, now has an Independent Mayor running the council, with Labour the largest group on the council but no longer in control. North Somerset has a deeply rooted Conservative Council, with a significant majority for a while now. Bath & NE Somerset council moves between Liberal Democrat and Conservative, with slim majorities and is currently Lib Dem controlled. South Gloucestershire is currently under Conservative control. So the political differences are also there for all to see.

Added to this complexity are the roles and responsibilities of the sub regional partnership under the guise of the LEP. It covers business growth, skills, jobs, and transport, and has a role in strategic planning for housing and employment space. As the core city, Bristol is at the centre of the discussions about growth deals, about new devolved responsibilities and a member of the core cities group that lobbies government on these issues. But on it’s own it can’t actually deliver much of the growth because it is hampered by ridiculous administrative boundaries that leave ⅓ of the urban area within the control of a different council (S.Glos). So around here we rely on informal partnership working to get things done, through an LEP that tries to be inclusive, but largely fails, and which seeks compromise in order to get agreement, reverting to the lowest common denominator all too often!

Now it seems we are adding a further complexity to this already complicated scenario. Bristol has teamed up with Cardiff and Newport in a cross border collaboration, in a new partnership called the “Great Western Cities” region. Its focus will be on improving transport infrastructure and connectivity, harnessing the energy generating potential of the Severn Estuary and marketing the area as a great place to do business. I can see the benefit of this kind of linkage but wonder quite how it sits with the West of England LEP and their plans for growth and development. Why is Bristol going it alone to seek new partnerships when we have a long standing one in place already – is it because it’s not working perhaps? Is it because Bristol has more in common with the likes of Cardiff than it could ever have with the other councils around here? Whatever the reason, it is an added level of complexity to an already complex system of local governance.

Darren Jones, Labour Parliamentary Candidate for Bristol North West, has outlined his views on this new partnership, suggesting it is either to do with politics and elections than anything else, or Bristol giving up on making things work in the traditional city region in favour of a new option. I have some sympathy for his analysis and discussion. Whilst I have never been entirely convinced by the LEP and its ability to deliver, we can’t afford to stop trying to get it right. Whether that is a new partnership with other areas, or more formal working structures across the West of England, something needs to change but quite what is clearly a point for debate. Indeed, one of the things that seems to be missing in all this is the public debate, where has there been a real opportunity to discuss properly what is needed and what would work best for the communities of Bristol and surrounding authorities? Is it just a decision for a handful of politicians, or does it need wider discussion?

It will be interesting to see how these informal partnerships progress and what benefits they bring to our city region. It’ll also be interesting to see if we really can compete with the more formal, structured systems being put in place elsewhere. With Manchester leading the way with its new devolution deal and metro mayor, and others such as Leeds, Sheffield, Birmingham  and Newcastle following rapidly, will the Bristol city region be left behind? The story will no doubt unfold over the coming months.

Garden city or urban extensions?

With all this talk about garden cities, new towns and urban extensions it almost seems like we are coming to some kind of consensus in terms of future house building and how to increase the supply of new homes in the UK. But will it actually come to anything? In previous years we have had promises of eco-towns and urban extensions, with few actually developed in the areas where housing need is greatest and we’ve had politicians promising to address the housing crisis, but policies have fallen well short. But just imagine that some of this actually comes to fruition and proposals for garden cities, besides Ebbsfleet, are actually put forward, and a whole host of urban extensions to existing conurbations are not just proposed but actually planned and developed. The question this raises for me is what does it mean here in Bristol and how will we respond?

In the recent past we have had proposals for urban extensions to Bristol, mostly resisted and removed from plans once the regional/national housing targets were abolished, but to my knowledge there has been little if any consideration of the notion of a new garden city in the area. If we accept there is a housing need locally, and few would dispute this, and we accept that not everyone wants to live in high density inner city areas, then what are the best options for accommodating the Bristol city-region’s housing need? And let’s dispel the myth that all the housing we need in the city region can be accommodated on brownfield land – it can’t. That may be true for the next 5-10 years but is pretty unlikely beyond that and planning for larger scale development takes time so needs to start now, not when we run out of other options.

Has there been any detailed work in recent years to consider the idea of a new town or garden city and would any of our local councils be brave enough to come forward with such proposals now? Would 2-3 extensions to the existing urban area be a better option? These are questions that we may well find ourselves forced to address over the next 10 years, as plans for jobs growth in the sub region continue there needs to be some serious consideration of how to accommodate the growth in new homes that this will generate (as well as addressing an existing backlog).

These are some of the issues the Lyons Review of Housing is considering as reported in The Guardian recently. One of the interesting points to come out of the review so far is this notion of communities having a say in planning but not the right of veto – an important distinction and one that councils and communities seem to forget. All too often local councils are afraid to propose new housebuilding and are resistant to change because of the strength of local opposition. The blame for lack of development then gets attributed to the planning system, when really it is down to politics. Until we can get a better balance between opposition to plans and the need for new homes, then the housing crisis will continue and councils will continue to shy away from proper planning for housing.

So, should we be considering a garden city and/or urban extensions, both have their merits and their problems. To some extent urban extensions are obvious where there are opportunities close to existing centres, where infrastructure is already in place and transport connections available. Garden cities provide the opportunity to start afresh, to provide sustainable communities through proper planning – an exciting opportunity if carefully located and if land assembly and ownership is sensibly organised. Here we need to take note of David Lock’s warnings about the failure of eco-towns and the potential barriers to the development of garden cities. We need to sort out the planning permission and land assembly in a different way to how most developments currently work, otherwise we will surely fail.

Its an exciting and challenging time to be a planner with an interest in housing, there are so many opportunities and innovative ideas out there that could make a difference, but will we embrace them? I’d like to think that with an Elected Mayor and a forward thinking Local Enterprise Partnership, Bristol could really lead the way on some of this. However, too often local ambitions are dampened down by the surrounding authorities and an overwhelming desire to protect and preserve, whilst ignoring the hardship and need this perpetuates. Those that have, protect what they have very successfully, whilst those that don’t have just struggle on through the daily grind.

The solution is to be brave and have a vision, and to hold on to that vision when the going gets tough – something the Bristol Mayor seems to be good at, so maybe there is hope after all? It’s also about taking people on the journey with you, a difficult one when it comes to new housing, but somehow we have to break the mould of resistance and turn it into acceptance and support – that is undoubtedly where our biggest challenge lies, in changing hearts and minds in North Somerset and South Gloucestershire. Is this a role for the LEP or the Mayor, or just maybe a bigger role for the nation state, for government intervention to make it happen? No doubt the run up to the 2015 general election will give us some clues on this as different political groups define their agendas and manifestos, but whatever happens, housing and planning seem set to remain as a key issue on the political agenda for some time to come.

Is ‘good growth’ the way forward for LEPs?

DSCN0444Once more the discussion turns to growth and prosperity, with the launch of the Smith Institute report on ‘Making local economies matter’ written by John Healey MP and Les Newby. This new report looks in detail at the policies lessons to be drawn from how the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) worked and assesses the early experience of their replacement bodies – Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). It’s a timely piece of work, that follows on neatly from the JRF report on Economic Growth and Poverty (which I blogged about here) and has been produced in time to feed into political manifestos and policy debate leading up to the 2015 General Election.

I don’t intend to do a full review of the report, as I am sure others will cover that better than I can, but I will draw out a few key issues that resonate with my experience of LEPs and where concerns have been raised before. There is much to be welcomed in this report as it provides a good discussion of many of the big issues relating to local economic development, the role of LEPs and who decides where priorities should lie. When you look back at the RDAs it’s interesting to note just how much wider their role was than the partially self-imposed narrow role that LEPs seem to have taken up. RDAs did have a long term vision for physical and social regeneration, and the important point to note here is their role in ‘social’ aspects not just economic and physical regeneration and growth. This is definitely something missing from the LEP remit. They also planned for the long term and set out a strategic vision, without the RDAs we seem to be moving back to short term bidding for funds and delivery of government programmes without any long term vision available for what we are actually trying to achieve. Clearly a mistake, as this leads to lack of coherence, lack of coordination and an inability to really address the issues that matter.

The report picks up on 7 key areas where policy changes or improvements are needed in relation to LEPs, these are set out below:

  • sub national economic development role
  • geography and functional economic areas
  • issues LEPs should cover
  • funding and capacity
  • type and culture of LEPs
  • accountability
  • monitoring

I don’t intend to cover all of these areas, just the ones I think are most important. So, I’ll start with the debate around functional economic areas (FEA) and how we ended up with the LEPs we have now. In my experience this was definitely a local political decision, influenced heavily by local authority politicians and officers who were keen to keep FEAs to fit with local council boundaries. In the West of England this was certainly the case, as others tried to encourage discussion about a wider geography, potentially focusing on the M4 corridor or linking with Gloucester/Cheltenham urban area, the council representatives were keen to close this down and ensure the boundary fitted with the four local council areas. Is this the best FEA or could it be better? It’s certainly the smallest in geography and population of all the core city LEPs and sits within the list of smallest LEPs in the country only just hitting the 1 million population mark. I guess it works as a city region, but only just, and it could have been far more creative and innovative to go with a different geography based on where the growth really is and potentially far more powerful if it had encompassed other growth areas.

For me though, the biggest issue that this report raises is that of regional and local disparities and the role of LEPs in addressing these. The analysis at the beginning of the report makes it clear that because much of the initial funding to LEPs was based on a flat rate, that actually meant the smaller LEPs, often those in the most prosperous areas, got a higher rate of funding per head than those most in need in the least prosperous areas. There’s an interesting debate here that I recall from various business discussions in the Bristol city region – do you invest in the areas that are most able to provide growth and GVA contribution to UK plc or do you invest in those areas that most need it. Of course the conclusion to that discussion in Bristol is very much focused on invest here because we can contribute more as a prosperous and growing area. However, all that does is increase the regional disparities that already exist and consign other areas of the country to continued decline, whilst areas like Bristol do quite well and continue to prosper. It’s an interesting conundrum for any government to address and the current approach seems to be giving to those that already have rather than those that don’t, but surely not an approach that can continue indefinitely?

This, of course, also all comes back to how you define growth, the subject of another blog I wrote recently – Economic Growth & Poverty. In the Smith Institute report they talk about ‘good growth’ being the aim rather than economic growth and argue that the concept of growth that the LEPs are addressing needs to be clarified:

“The concept of ‘good growth’ or ‘sustainable economic development’ infers a focus on achieving growth and on the way in which it translates into employment, incomes and opportunities for disadvantaged communities, and low carbon/environmental benefits. Adopting a good growth agenda for LEPs should support wider policy messages about the need for growth to a make difference to people’s pockets and to reduce poverty.” (p.58).

Now if the role of LEPs were to be widened to encompass this concept of ‘good growth’ then the Single Economic Strategy for each LEP area would look very different and would have to address issues in a much more holistic manner than the current SEPs do – what a welcome change that would be! But LEPs cannot do this on their own, the local economic plans would need to be set within the context of a national plan – a national strategy for addressing regional disparities and one that focuses on areas of disadvantage. This would enable LEPs to address similar disparities at a local level and focus on the issues that really matter rather than those that fit neatly with certain funding pots.

There’s clearly a big debate to be had about the issues that LEPs cover, and to a point this depends on other issues, such as accountability and nature of the organisation. If LEPs continue in form and structure as they are at the moment, with such a big emphasis on less than transparent appointment processes, focus on business and little role for representatives from other sections of society, then I suspect any widening of their role will be resisted from all sides. However, if accountability is improved, processes of appointments to the LEP boards are opened up and clear output based measures are introduced to assess and monitor performance, then there could be a wider role in strategic planning, housing and social regeneration.

I look forward to seeing how the debate progresses, but certainly for me the important issue here is the focus on a different type of growth – good growth – that translates growth into addressing inequalities and disparities and doesn’t rely on ‘trickle-down’ as a means of ensuring everyone benefits.

A Focus on South Bristol – Let’s Redraw the Economic Map of the Bristol City Region

South Bristol has many advantages – it is close to the city centre, surrounded by beautiful countryside and well located in relation to Bristol Airport. It has some lovely houses, in garden suburb layouts, with large gardens and green open spaces close by. But to many it is perceived as inaccessible, with a poor quality environment, unskilled workforce and high levels of crime and anti-social behaviour.

Look at any table of statistics for the Bristol City region – on house prices, crime, educational attainment, skills or employment levels and one thing will quickly become obvious. The central area and the northern fringe are making great strides but South Bristol is lagging behind:

  • The worst 2 areas nationally for lack of attainment amongst children/young people are in Knowle West
  • 6 areas in South Bristol are in the most deprived 100 nationally
  • More than a third of people in South Bristol live in areas which fall in the most deprived 10% nationally in terms of education, skills and training deprivation
  • Of the most deprived 20 areas in Bristol in terms of education, skills and training, 18 are in South Bristol
  • 35% of people aged 16-74 in South Bristol have no qualifications
  • Four areas in South Bristol are in the most deprived 10% nationally in terms of health deprivation and disability
  • Of the worst 10 areas in Bristol in terms of crime, eight are in South Bristol
  • 3 areas in South Bristol are in the worst 50 areas in England in terms of crime.

That’s a sad reflection on Bristol itself and all those who have been, or are, in a position to do something about it. But with vision, leadership and ambition all that can change. So why hasn’t it? We have been talking about South Bristol as an area of multiple deprivation and disadvantage for decades, but how much has actually changed? Yes there have been some improvements in recent years; new schools, the redevelopment of Symes Avenue, new housing at Lakeshore, a new community hospital, skills centre and a leisure centre. But is this the best we can do?

Just what are our aspirations for South Bristol?  From so many points of view it seems once more to be left behind. Do the Local Enterprise Partnership have plans to bring jobs, regeneration, housing and skills to the area or has it been forgotten in their plans or maybe just placed in the too difficult to handle box? Have the Mayor and Bristol City Council got plans and will they work with the local community to see what they want?

From the outside looking in, South Bristol just seems to keep missing out and will continue to lag behind other areas of the city until it features high enough in political aspirations and action.

Rather than allocate South Bristol as an Enterprise Zone or major growth area, like other areas of the city region, the Local Enterprise Partnership instead decided to focus entirely on transport links – the North Fringe to Hengrove BRT route and the South Bristol Link Road. Will this really deliver what is needed for South Bristol or is it just the tip of the iceberg?

South Bristol could be so different but what do we need to do to make it happen and whose job is it?

Is this something the local communities themselves can take control of and outline what they would like different areas of South Bristol to be like, or is it up to the Local Enterprise Partnership to remember to include it in their plans and focus funding on the area, or is it down to the Mayor?

I suspect it should be a combination of all of these but so far there is little evidence to suggest that much is actually happening?

The economic map of the Bristol City region could be redrawn to embrace South Bristol and make it the focus of everyone’s attention but will it ever happen? I’ve been waiting 20 years to see real change and all I can see at the moment is piecemeal, ad hoc, low quality developments that look like no one in authority really cares about the people or the area!