How the English Devolution Deals were done – policy making ‘front’ and ‘back’ stage

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Successfully managing the transition between ‘back stage’ negotiations and ‘front stage’ decision making is essential for the future success of English devolution. That is the conclusion of the Political Studies Association’s Research Commission I was involved in to examine the role of ‘informal governance’ on devolution to England’s cities. It is also the focus of an article I co-authored on ‘front and back stage decision making’ just published in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations.

The case of English Devolution in recent years provides us with an interesting example of the complex interrelationship between ‘front’ and ‘back’ stage policy-making. Front stage, public officials are observable and accountable as office holders in elected bodies and are constrained by established bureaucratic rules, codes of conduct and public scrutiny. Back stage describes the world of complex decision making where public officials are hidden from public scrutiny and can engage in negotiations less constrained by formal rules

Research findings reveal that the devolution deal process is purposefully low on guidance and has involved a small number of key actors from central and local government negotiating the deals largely behind closed doors. This process has been criticised by some as being secretive and lacking transparency and legitimacy. From this perspective, high levels of informal working can be viewed as the latest chapter in the power-hoarding instincts of the British political tradition. By using informal means to shape local aspirations behind closed doors, the ‘shadow of hierarchy’ is operationalised in more subtle ways.

Nonetheless, the findings in our article are more nuanced than this account describes. Evidence also indicated a genuine desire on the part of critical actors involved in the process to drive forward devolution. One local government respondents said ‘it created momentum and progress in a policy area that had limped along for years’. Informality had created an innovative space to explore policy options and to generate trust between central and local actors. Back stage negotiations were seen as a route to achieving the transfer of power to the local level. While there were differences of opinion on the details of the negotiations, the majority of respondents from central and local government viewed the process positively. On the whole it was seen as far less adversarial than in the past.

But, momentum and progress was made at the cost of inclusivity and buy in from a broader stakeholders and the public. Deals were offered to areas on a take it or leave it basis and some areas chose to leave it as deals have collapsed in parts of England. Our research shows that the trust generated back stage between core insiders did not always percolate to the formal front stage. The challenge for policy makers moving forward is to strike the right balance between the flexibility afforded by back stage informality and demands for greater front stage democratic accountability.

For example, a lack of public awareness and opportunities for consultation have undermined an effective transition between back and front stage decision making. Public information and consultation at critical stages in the process might alleviate this risk. Second, the move towards more transactional and negotiated deal making clearly advantaged some areas over others. Those with a history of partnership working and established high trust relationships with central government were best able to champion local interests. Third, while some areas of the negotiation might best remain back stage, the blanket ‘shut down’ in local dialogue undermined the potential for sharing best practice and policy innovation. Allowing some elements of the bids to be discussed more openly would permit a ‘softer’ transition between back and front stage.

In the context of Brexit and a public mood of mistrust and apathy towards politics and politicians it is even more important than ever before to get the balance right. A policy agenda that is supposed to be about empowering local areas needs to be seen to be conducted in a democratic way.

This blog post was written with Sarah Ayres (University of Bristol) and Mark Sandford (House of Commons Library) from our recently published article. A version of this blog post has also appeared on the PSA Blog.

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Grab the power, use it, then ask for more!

BWST02 AW AerialSo it seems Bristol, South Gloucestershire, and Bath and North East Somerset Councils have signed up to the devolution deal on offer and with it have agreed to set up a combined authority with a directly elected metro mayor. Whilst this was indeed the most likely outcome, there was always the possibility that it could be derailed at this point.

Earlier this month North Somerset Council opted not to be part of this, they said an emphatic no to the deal. So the full area covered by the Local Enterprise Partnership will not be the same as the deal area. This in itself could cause future complications when discussing strategic planning and transport. But, let’s not dwell on that, the important thing to note here is that politicians in North Somerset voted to exclude their population from receiving this extra funding and additional local power. They’ll just have to sit back and watch the other areas benefit from it instead!

It would be fair to say that whilst the deal was agreed in the other three areas it was with significant reservations and concerns. Those concerns focused primarily on the notion of the imposed structure, which was made clear from the start – without a metro mayor there would be no deal. The idea of creating another powerful position, which sits above the existing Bristol Mayor and other Council Leaders, is clearly something that will take some getting used to. Equally, the idea that there is an imposed structure, devised by government, is never going to be particularly popular with local politicians, decision makers and the public. But thankfully, other than in North Somerset, this was not enough on its own to derail the deal.

Concerns have also been raised about the lack of transparency and accountability of the whole process. Most of the initial discussions were held in secret, behind closed doors, involving local leaders with Whitehall officials. The content of those discussions did not become clear until the deal was published. This in itself is challenging, for those local politicians not included, for the public and those with an interest in local decision making it meant buy-in to, and understanding of, the deal was limited. It means we have little idea of what was not included and why, we only know what is there now. Did our political leaders try for more powers over housing, health, and education, or does the deal reflect the limits of their ambition? Did they challenge and discuss how economic growth could be made to work for those traditionally excluded from the benefits of ‘trickle-down’ and try to address the issues in a different way? I guess we’re unlikely to know, all we can do is work on what was agreed and draw our own conclusions on what we think is missing.

I posed a number of questions about the devolution deal earlier this year, which remain pertinent now: would it matter if we didn’t agree it; is it worth it; is it the right structure; and what’s missing?

In terms of the first two questions then I think the answer is becoming even more clear now, with the events of last week (Brexit), Bristol and the city region need to take whatever is on offer to enable more independent and local control over what happens in our city region. As a diverse, forward thinking city region, we need to make local decisions about key issues that impact upon our area. I say, grab the power and use it, and then go back and ask for more, and more again. In the Bristol city region we have the capacity, ambition and foresight to make this work, to be at the forefront of creative and innovative policy and action, and now more than ever this is what we need to do. I applaud our politicians for making this difficult decision, failing to do so could have left Bristol behind other city regions where deals have already been struck.

Don’t get me wrong; I personally have concerns over how this whole thing will work, whether the current deal is enough, whether the structure will work, and whether there is enough flexibility to really address the issues that matter in our area. But, as others have said, it is the only offer on the table, without it we stay where we are, we lose out on money and power whilst other areas benefit.

As for the metro mayor and combined authority, then I can see both pros and cons. The combined authority that has power to take decisions over key strategic matters without constant reference back to each local council area is in my view something we have needed in this area for some time. The metro mayor is a different matter. There has been no consultation over this, no opportunity to see if there is a public appetite for such a role and no real open debate about the benefits it could bring. Indeed, the government itself has consistently failed to make the case for metro mayors, other than to make it clear you have to have one to get the deal.

But nonetheless, that’s what we are stuck with, so lets embrace the idea and make the most of it; make it work for our city region. What it does potentially provide is a role that has the interests of the whole city region at its heart. The metro mayor will promote and speak for the city region in its entirety, rather than represent a small part of it. We haven’t seen that kind of strategic leadership for some time and it has been sorely missed.

The final question I asked was about what’s missing from the deal. In relation to this then I think the door is still open. Where deals have been agreed in other areas it seems to have provided the opportunity to continue negotiations, to add powers and keep the discussion going. So there’s an opportunity for the Bristol Mayor and the Leaders of the other two councils to go to government and ask for more.

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, can we ask for it now? Now’s the chance to consult with more colleagues across the city region, talk to other areas and push hard on what is possible.

Perhaps rather than reluctant agreement we should be embracing the deal and everything it brings with it? The important thing now is to get as much as possible out of it and make it work for us.

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.

 

A Western Powerhouse?

Britain’s Western Powerhouse was launched recently, with a report authored by Metro Dynamics. It is an interesting initiative from the cities of Bristol, Cardiff and Newport. With a focus on connectivity and economic collaboration, it’s an attempt to show how the West can compete with the emerging Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale.

With a proliferation of names, including Western Powerhouse, Severn Powerhouse, and Great Western Cities (GWC) Powerhouse, the initiative is about illustrating the strength of this area as a net contributor to UK plc and just how much more could be achieved through increased collaboration. What it definitely is not about is any suggestion of formal structures or systems of governance. It is purely about collaboration and connectivity. You might wonder why this point is so important that it has to be stressed? Basically it is about distancing itself from the city region devolution agenda being pursued by the government, where metro mayors and combined authorities are necessary to elicit the best deals.

The Bristol city region has been negotiating on just such a deal since September last year, seemingly with a relative stalemate because locally the formal structures proposed by the government have received little support and neither side appears to be willing to compromise. It will be interesting to see if Bristol does indeed secure as good a deal as the other core cities that have accepted the government’s model.

Either way, this new collaboration with Cardiff and Newport provides a different opportunity. It seems obvious in some respects as we share the potential of the Severn Estuary and Cardiff is certainly the closest big city to Bristol, with little other competition close-by.

The report recommendations are light on detail and action, but that is perhaps to be expected from such an informal, non-structured relationship. They focus on the following aspects:

  • Establishing city devolution deals for Cardiff and Bristol city regions to provide the powers needed to support the GWC Powerhouse
  • Develop a campaign on better connectivity across the area (GWC Connect)
  • Develop a marketing and investment strategy
  • Undertake an innovation audit to identify key areas of economic and research strength to feed into a region wide innovation strategy
  • Establish data observatory

Now reading that list you might well think ‘what on earth does that mean’? I know I did. After an initial buzz of excitement that perhaps there was something in this idea and it might actually do something that could make a difference, the recommendations left me feeling totally deflated. Where was the action that would mean anything to anyone living in this area? Where was the ambition? Was this just going to be yet another document or strategy that would sit on a shelf somewhere and achieve nothing?

So I delved further into the report and came away feeling slightly more positive. The key is to think about what Cardiff and Bristol have in common, what connects the cities and what potential there is for creative and innovative ideas to develop. Then if you ignore the recommendations and develop your own, you can begin to see the potential that this form of collaboration might just deliver on.

Much of the talk in the document is about the Cardiff and Bristol metro areas and the strength of ‘constructed agglomeration’, where collaboration between multiple core cities/areas is able to achieve greater economic benefit than reliance on a single core. The benefits of agglomeration are defined as sharing, matching and learning. Something that already happens but could undoubtedly be improved through facilitation.

There’s a lot in the document about economic growth and industry density maps, travel to work flows and self-containment, inward investment and place marketing but what really stands out is the potential of collaboration around the Severn Estuary.

For me the couple of pages in the document on renewable energy and the estuary were the ones that made the most sense, where the opportunity to do something big and ambitious really shone through. The document does identify this as one of three areas that are central to GWC future growth, where there is potential for innovation and increasing expertise. It talks about tidal, wave and wind energy and emerging ideas around tidal stream and tidal range technology. The linkages to increased workforce capacity, improved supply chains and the use of existing research capacity provide perhaps the greatest opportunity for collaboration and innovation, where we might be able to see a real difference. What is lacking is any idea of how this might happen.

It is a shame the report recommendations do not seem to pick up on the potential of the resource we have in the Estuary and provide proposals for real action that would make a difference. It seems we just have to hope that others will pick up on this and be more creative about what is possible.

This blogpost first appeared on the Bristol 247 website.

Housing, devolution and growth – top posts of 2015

IMG_3362Well it is that time of year again isn’t it? Time to sum up what was popular on my blog in 2015. Housing, devolution, growth and a bit about values, sums up the topics of the five most popular posts. These were closely followed by others on housing, devolution, cities and governance, with the odd diversion into PhD world.

So the winner of most popular blog of the year is one I wrote quite recently and that got re-published on a few other blog and news sites too – the invisibility of homelessness. This was a somewhat emotional blog about living in a prosperous city like Bristol, where homelessness is increasing and where more and more people are finding themselves in need of help and support in order to have a decent home to live in. It was also about the plight of ex-servicemen who live on the streets and how we have let them down as a society. The topic obviously struck a cord with many people as the post received twice as many views as the next most popular.

The other top posts were as follows:

  • Time to return to core values – this was a post-election commentary about the Lib Dem and Labour leadership campaigns and the need for a real, grown up political debate about core values and principles. A debate that is as relevant now as it was in July!
  • The devolution debate: what about Bristol? – about the need for a metro mayor and combined authority, and why devolution matters, with growing concerns that the Bristol city region is being left behind. Again, as relevant now, if not more so, as it was in May when I wrote this piece.
  • How to solve the housing crisis – this post was actually about a pre-election debate I went to with parliamentary candidates, where there was common agreement on the housing problem and that things needed to change, but where there was little in the way of innovative or creative solutions on offer. An interesting debate but one that left me feeling less than positive about what might change post-election.
  • Constraints on growth: what’s holding our cities back? – a post based on a report by IPPR and Shelter on growing cities, which identified the main constraints and provided some interesting and practical solutions for overcoming these. My take on the matter was that in the Bristol city region we needed a change of attitude and a growing willingness to embrace change before we could make a difference. Sadly, much of this willingness is still lacking and the constraints that are holding us back are still there, as they have been for many years.

One post that almost made it, and is worthy of a mention (at least in my view) is one I wrote after going to a debate about measuring poverty and living standards. This was about using evidence to support policy and how to attract policy makers attention by telling the right story, with some important lessons from New Zealand. This is no doubt a debate that along with the topics highlighted above will inevitably continue into 2016.

This year is going to be a busy year for me, with PhD fieldwork now in full swing, during a concentrated period leading up to the Bristol Mayoral election in May, so blog posts may be somewhat infrequent. We’ll see, but hopefully I’ll manage a few if you still keep reading them. Thanks for all your views, comments and support throughout 2015, much appreciated.

The challenge and complexity of cities

The Bristol Festival of the Future City presented the opportunity to learn more about the complex and challenging issues facing our cities. It was a week long event with many talks, discussions and presentations about a whole range of topics, some familiar, others less so. It was a week where Bristol was bursting at the seams with eminent speakers from across the globe, including academics, journalists, politicians, novelists, poets and commentators, all with something different to contribute.

I attended a number of events during the week, all of which provided insight, interest and challenge. I deliberately chose a mix of events to go to, to broaden my own horizons. I also chose to go and listen to some speakers I hadn’t heard before as well as some I was far more familiar with. There was certainly a lot of choice and on many an occasion I found myself wishing I could be in more than one place at the same time.

Rather than writing about one specific talk, I thought I’d draw out some of the themes that seemed to crop up across discussions and debates around the social policy issues relevant to cities. There were many more talks, covering many other issues about future cities, smart cities and technology, environmental and health issues, which I won’t cover here, as I didn’t attend those events. The themes I draw out are consistent themes that will inevitably be raised when discussing the challenges we face in our cities – the need for vision, city governance, housing and homelessness, and social mobility. I’ll touch on each of these briefly to explore some of the issues that came up and some of the questions that remain unanswered.

When it comes to vision there appears to be an increasing need for policy makers and politicians to think short, medium and long term, in a coherent and coordinated manner. However, whilst we seem well able to think in the moment and make short-term decisions, this is all too frequently done without any reference to the future impact or consequences of those decisions. What is lacking is a process of forward planning and thinking, like the visionaries of the past, who often thought about our cities and urban areas in a more creative and innovative way. As Sir Mark Walport put it in his presentation at the Launch event for the Festival, “thinking about the future can shape the future”. Without that future thinking we risk leaving the growth and development of our cities to an ad hoc, messy process of short termism and disjointed thinking, which leaves us well short of the creativity and innovation that is both needed and possible. The question is, do we have the ability, desire and bravery to unleash the potential of our cities?

The discussion around city governance was perhaps inevitable, particularly given the recent introduction of the Mayoral model in Bristol and recent announcements in other cities of devolution deals with metro mayors and combined authorities being established as the norm. City governance is undoubtedly changing at quite a pace, pushed along by central government to a central agenda, which according to Greg Clark MP, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, is driven by the need to reverse a century of centralisation to ‘return power to every part of our nation’.

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He talked about the devolution deals as having ‘swept away required uniformity’, about a dynamic, competitive process to allow local strengths and local priorities to shine through. Despite this several commentators referred to the similarities and common ground found in many of the deals, with only small differences being identified around local projects amongst an overall uniformity of approach. This suggests, perhaps, that the vision, ambition and big ideas that need to be generated in our cities are not quite there yet. The reality of government processes and bureaucracy appears to be a long way short of some of the rhetoric? What did come across very clear was the notion that English local government structures are becoming very messy. Imagine a process of trying to explain to a group of foreign politicians or students how local government works, what the structure is and who takes decisions, and you might find it takes a very long time. We have unitary, country and district authorities; we have combined authorities with metro mayors to come; we have directly elected mayors running some councils, whilst others are run by leaders and cabinets, others still have reverted to the ‘old style’ committee system. It’s an ad hoc picture with seemingly no real coherence or commitment to a future uniformity.

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Whilst housing is becoming one of the most important issues for our cities to deal with, the changing government agenda is perhaps providing greater restrictions on the options and opportunities for local government to tackle local housing problems, as the emphasis is pushed further and further towards the ultimate goal of home ownership. Despite this, local authorities are left to pick up the pieces of dysfunctional housing markets, and the lack of affordability, lack of supply and lack of choice this creates. In Bristol, and elsewhere, much of the conversation about housing quickly focuses in on a small number of issues that perhaps local government can do something about. Indeed, the Mayor of Bristol, in his State of the City address delivered at the end of the Festival, made reference to Bristol’s housing problem, with solutions based around releasing public land for housing and the increasing problem of homelessness in the city. There are of course many more housing issues that need tackling and a range of solutions that are required to provide decent, affordable homes for those that need them. Solutions that provide real choices, rather than forcing people down a particular route they may not wish to travel. Much of this process of providing solutions and choices is however seemingly out of the hands of local government and instead rests with central government, where social housing for rent is fast becoming a thing of the past, and affordable housing means ‘affordable’ to buy. The question remains about what local government can do to address the very real problems faced in their areas and what scope they have to be creative and innovative about housing solutions.

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A final theme running through many of the debates, as well as the focus of some particular talks, is the issue of social mobility, or social immobility as one speaker termed it. Perhaps unusually, one of the discussions on this issue began with comments about redefining the issue, of the need to talk about social mobility alongside planning, design and transport with an understanding that how poverty is distributed around a city makes a real difference to the functioning of that city. All too often, the people with the least economic stability, living in the greatest poverty, are pushed to the edges of our cities, into peripheral estates, isolated from the wealth of the city. Our perceptions of cities and the way we feel about them are shaped by how we experience them. If our experience is one of isolation, exclusion and poverty, then our perception of the city is likely to be a negative one, where our desire is likely to be one of ‘escaping’ rather than staying. The focus soon shifted to the debate about barriers to social mobility not just being physical or economic, but also psychological, where ‘glass walls’ in people’s own heads stop them making progress. Marvin Rees made the point that to talk about social immobility means we have to talk about the people at the top as well as the people at the bottom, only then can we understand what the problem really is. Social mobility issues were discussed not as an accidental fallout of ‘the system’ but more as a manufactured, institutional part of a system that is needed to make it work, where there are the inevitable winners and losers, but where the starting position is anything but equal. The depressing conclusion to much this discussion was that the lack of social mobility in the UK is a problem that never goes away as the relationship between class and place hasn’t and won’t change, indeed if anything, it’s getting worse.

I thoroughly enjoyed the debates and discussions throughout the week that drew out the challenge and complexity of cities, which sought to provide linkages between and across issues and disciplines, looking to the future for solutions and ideas. The challenge is there to decision makers, policy makers and politicians to have the vision, creativity and bravery to grapple with the issues and develop big ideas and bold visions for the future of our cities.

What’s popular on the blog?

DSCN0141As I haven’t written much recently on my blog I thought I’d take a look and see what’s been popular over the last few months. I thought it might help me to decide what to write about next and see what people are interested in. So here goes, a bit of a mixture of topics, some older some newer seem to have attracted attention.

The most popular is actually one I wrote up after I gave a talk to some of my fellow PhD students in the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol. The talk was about using social media as a researcher and was aimed at trying to interest phd researchers in the notion of engaging with a wider audience, connecting outside of academia and entering the world of social media to promote themselves and their research. It was a tough audience as many academics are somewhat sceptical about social media. Not sure how my talk went down, but the blogpost seems to have been well received and remains popular!

The other posts that have hit popularity over the last few months include one I wrote back in May on devolution, a topic that is of course hitting the news again at the moment, and one I wrote in July about constraints on growth, another topic that seems to remain popular. More recent posts have been on the Bristol mayoral election and one on neighbourhood planning, both receiving quite a bit of attention. The full top five list is as follows:

It’s probably about time I wrote another one about housing, but it kind of feels like everything has already been said. It’s such a depressing time to talk about housing policy at the moment, as we slowly but surely watch it all unravel, being systematically destroyed by a government interested only in home ownership, whilst ignoring the very real housing need that exists in many of our cities and towns, which will never be adequately provided for by the private sector.