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.

Mayors, Elections and Voters!

The issue of how to improve local leadership and reinvigorate local democracy has been on the political agenda for some time. Both Conservative and Labour politicians have promoted the idea of directly elected mayors as part of the solution to the perceived problems of the more traditional committee system of local government. The mayoral model is premised on the assumption that local councils need a figurehead, to provide clear, accountable local leadership. The debate about mayors can be firmly located within the debate about the modernisation of local government and the role of local politicians in reconnecting local government to local communities. The rationale for elected mayors is about clarity of decision making, visibility and profile.

In May 2002 the first elections for mayors were held in seven urban areas including Doncaster, Hartlepool and Middlesbrough. Subsequent efforts have been made over the last 10 years by different governments to introduce more directly elected mayors in cities and urban areas. In reality, however, the introduction of directly elected mayors seems to have had little impact on political attitudes or voter turnout and overall the general public seem less than interested in the whole notion of elected mayors. The mayoral referendums themselves and the actual mayoral elections have averaged a voter turnout figure of just 29%, not exactly a ringing endorsement for their success in revitalising local democracy.

In terms of the 50 mayoral referendums that have been held, between 2001 and 2012, only 15 resulted in a ‘yes’ vote. A further round of referendums were held in the 10 core cities in England in 2012, with only one city (Bristol) voting to have an elected mayor, and then only by a small margin and with a turnout of only 24%.

Source: Fenwick & Elcock (2014)

However, there are signs that where sitting mayors come to the end of their first term of office, voter turnout in subsequent elections increases significantly. Which given one of the primary objectives of the mayoral model, as promoted by government, is to increase voter participation, there could be seen to be a positive impact if this trend continues. 

In the early elections for mayors in 2002/03, the majority of those elected were independent candidates, with only 4 out of 12 representing the same party as that in control of the council. However, the trend is changing, with 8 of the 15 directly elected mayors (excluding London) representing the Labour Party and only 4 independents. Evidence from existing mayoral elections also suggests that the incumbent mayors are re-elected with a higher vote than originally achieved. An illustration perhaps of the existing visibility and profile of mayors giving them an edge over competitors?

So what’s next? There will be mayoral elections in London, Bristol, Liverpool and Salford next year (2016), which should provide an interesting insight into whether or not the mayoral model is beginning to take hold and make a difference in England. It will also help to inform us about whether or not people are more engaged with politics and democracy in these areas. Will voter turnout be higher in areas where there are mayoral elections as well as local council elections? It remains to be seen, but the general trend is going in that direction.

In Bristol it will be interesting to see if the current independent mayor, George Ferguson, holds onto the role, or if Labour can stage a comeback after losing out last time. There may also be a continuation of the increased support seen in this years local elections for the Green Party. So we could see a 3-way fight to become the next mayor of Bristol. At the very least, with all 70 councillors as well as the mayor up for election, we should see a high profile election campaign. But will we see an increase in public engagement and more people voting? Let’s hope so!

Devolution to and within cities

The devolution agenda in England appears to have an element of cross party consensus, at least on the surface in relation to the need for something to change, even if the detail is somewhat lacking. The discussion to date appears to be dominated by central government, local authorities and business, with the emphasis very much on what the government wants, with everyone else running around to catch up. It’s also a debate that seems to be focused on structures rather than resources and responsibilities, as is often the way with public sector change. The concept is debated without the detail, when we all know “the devil is in the detail”. The whole debate is also being conducted against a backdrop of austerity measures, where local government funding is being severely cut and public services decimated. So one has to ask the question whether or not devolution is just an opportunity for government to shift the burden of cuts and service delivery to local councils, or whether it is really responding to an agenda about democratic accountability and improving local services. I guess it’s a bit of both?

With the establishment of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEP) and talk of Combined Authorities the discussion, at least in Bristol, seems to centre around business and growth, with the business community working alongside the public sector to create their vision for the growth and prosperity of an area. It’s been about marketing the city region, saying how fantastic we are, quoting GDP and GVA figures to show what a strong economy we have and talking about all the brilliant local businesses we have in all the right sectors. All very important of course, but sadly lacking in terms of any reference to communities, poverty and inequalities. In our rush to say what a brilliant place the Bristol city region is, we forget about what’s important and all too often lack any connection with local people and local needs.

George Ferguson, in a presentation to the community and voluntary sector in Bristol described devolution as “local freedom” and made reference to the Charter for Local Freedom. The Charter, whilst based on the principles of prosperity, equality and democracy, comes across primarily as an economic vision, with the focus on strengthening local economies and getting people into jobs in order to save public money. However, it also has a strong vein running through it about local democracy, trusting people to make the right choices, empowering communities and neighbourhoods, with the decisions taken at the most appropriate level. This was a key theme to emerge from the debate at the VOSCUR meeting in Bristol where there was a real sense that devolution needed to be about devolution within cities not just to cities. One of the main voices missing in the debate is that of the community and voluntary sector and there was a call from members of the panel for a strong shared vision to emerge from the sector and the need for community leadership, to challenge the business focused vision that is firmly in place through the LEPs.

Throughout the debate it was clear that there was a real emphasis on the need for civil society to take back control of this agenda and stop it being about reaction to a centrally imposed system or approach. If the debate about devolution is really about local freedom, then the power to decide locally what are the best structures and the required resources is absolutely fundamental to its success. A one size fits all approach, imposed by the centre on local councils desperate to win out in competitive funding regimes, is not the answer. An approach founded on proper engagement of local people, beyond business and politicians, based on local need and local circumstances would undoubtedly work better, but is in itself a real challenge for central government. For government to not only devolve decision making and resources, but also decisions about structures, it has to have a sense that the local area can be trusted and that it will come up with something that works. Sadly, this doesn’t often seem to be the foundation of the relationship between our different levels of government at the moment, often for justifiable reasons.

The devolution agenda is an opportunity to do something different. It’s an opportunity for public, private and voluntary and community sectors to put together a local proposal that works for the city region. There is no central blueprint, what works in Manchester won’t necessarily work in Bristol. The trick is for Bristol, and other areas, to put forward those proposals, collaboratively, through proper engagement and discussion, and ensure that what Bristol gets is best for Bristol.  The key for the voluntary and community sector is to ensure they are a central part of the discussion, that they are at the table when the decisions are taken and that they have a shared vision and strong leadership to ensure their voice is heard. At the moment, it feels like we are a long way from this shared vision and time is running out.

The Bristol Mayor – You know it makes sense!

IMG_2115As the first Directly Elected Mayor (DEM) for Bristol enters his third year of office, what can we say about this new role and the changes we have seen during the first two years? Has it worked, has the role made a difference? To some degree it depends on your starting point. If you were one of those who supported the idea of a DEM and voted Yes in the referendum, and/or voted for George Ferguson in the election then you are likely to be more positively disposed to both the role and the incumbent (or at least I would imagine that to be the case). Those who voted No in the referendum and were opposed to the role of a DEM for Bristol and/or subsequently voted for another candidate in the election (or didn’t vote at all) may well be likely to look for more negatives and be more critical of the system as it is working now. It is difficult to be objective when you start from a particular position.

Equally it is highly likely that you were one of those who didn’t vote in the referendum and didn’t vote in the subsequent election, one of the majority in fact? So whilst the political elite and the powers in central government believe DEM are an important issue in terms of how our cities are run and managed, local people seemed to be less than convinced, either by the proposals at the time or more likely were just disillusioned with the political classes generally – “they’re all as bad as one another” or “they’re all the same” being an often quoted reason for not voting.

It seems to me that the idea of a DEM before the experience of one was not enough to convince people it might be a solution to the negativity and disinterest surrounding local democracy – it didn’t catch on with most of the public, wasn’t interesting enough or different enough? It will be interesting therefore to see in 2016, when the Bristol Mayor is up for election alongside all 70 local councillors, whether or not people have been more or less convinced by the experience of having a city mayor, how the role works and what difference it makes.

One thing is clear, George Ferguson is far more visible as a council leader and champion for the city than any other recent leader of the council. This view is supported by the work of Bristol University and UWE in their research on civic leadership, which clearly found that  the mayoral model in Bristol provides high profile, visible leadership. But is visibility enough, what more did we expect from this new role? Issues and benefits of the role talked about at the time of the referendum included, clarity of decision making, more power and resources to come from government, ability to take the difficult decisions and ability to be more strategic and develop longer term plans because the role was not tied to the annual election cycle. So have we seen a difference in relation to any of these issues? Has George Ferguson delivered on any of these aspects any better than the council and party leaders have in the past? At the time the arguments for a DEM were quite compelling  – we’d get more power, more money, more responsibility locally as a result of going along with this government promoted strategy. The practice however is less compelling, have we really done better than any of the other core cities when it comes to devolved power and additional resources – from where I’m sitting it doesn’t look like it. In fact other cities are now beginning to steal the march on us – Manchester with it’s combined authority and the promise of a metro mayor, Leeds and Birmingham likely to follow soon, all look set to achieve more. So what difference has having an elected mayor really made to Bristol, beyond increasing the visibility of the role and the city, which are major achievements in themselves, but is that all we can expect?

Which brings me to the Mayor’s Annual Lecture and State of the City address. Around 900 people gathered in the Great Hall at the Wills Memorial Building last night (10th Nov) to listen to George’s second annual lecture, and I was amongst them. Overall what we got was a speech that delivered many of the right statements, rhetoric and promises but was a bit light on detail and actions – probably to be expected of these kind of events? George opened by talking about his commitment to turning promises, hopes and aspirations into actions, all very commendable, but has he delivered on that? He talked about raising the profile of the city, attending lots of meetings and events all over the world and about the leadership role which he admitted he didn’t always get right. He also talked about Bristol as a prosperous city but also a city of contrasts, where not everyone feels the benefit of progress. There was a clear recognition that whilst we can hail and promote the success of Bristol we also need to recognise that in a prosperous city those with less who do not benefit from this prosperity are relatively poorer. Again, the rhetoric was certainly there, but what of actions? I was less convinced when it came to understanding quite what we were going to do differently to address problems of inequality, the detail was certainly lacking, although reference was made to the Mayoral Commissions, including the Fairness Commission and the need to take on board their recommendations.

George talked about housing, transport, jobs, economy and infrastructure, including some big projects like Filwood Green Business Park, Temple Quarter Enterprise Zone and of course, the Arena. Decisions about transport have probably created the greatest controversy in Bristol so far during George’s term of office, with residents parking and 20mph zones generating the most debate and criticism. I’m with George on the notion that he is there to take the difficult decisions and to make things happen that other leaders have been to hesitant to implement, and I’m with him on the need to do something about traffic and congestion. But I do think he has shied away from some of the tougher options, like Workplace Parking Levy and Congestion Charging, both of which could bring in the funding needed to pay for a real tram scheme in Bristol and which could make the biggest difference to congestion and air pollution in the city. These are difficult issues and challenging for business but need to be put back onto the agenda as part of a longer term strategy that puts people first in terms of accessibility rather than cars! Sadly on many of the big issues raised there were few solutions and little detail offered. I was left feeling like things hadn’t really moved on much from last year’s speech, but maybe I was expecting too much.

One area where we did see some real commitment was on the issue of devolution and the need for a combined authority for the Greater Bristol area. George threw down a challenge to his fellow leaders across the West of England, making it clear that there is a window of opportunity there for the taking, if we don’t gear up for this change it will be a major opportunity missed for the area and we’ll lose out compared to other cities. The changes proposed in Manchester are likely to be followed up in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, with new powers on transport, skills, homes and strategic planning all available if only we can get our act together round here. This means going beyond the trite statements about ‘working together’ that we all too often hear from council leaders in the surrounding authorities and instead those leaders need to accept that being part of a Greater Bristol city region is the way forward, with clear commitment across party lines and artificial boundaries. As George said – “You know it makes sense” – a good note to end his speech on!

Overall I was left feeling rather conflicted, positive about some elements of the debate and uncertain and unsure about other elements. The mayoral role has helped but not enough, yet? For me we are still stuck on short term plans and spend too little time on longer term, strategic planning. We try to affect the here and now, but ignore the bigger issues. We also pander to government initiatives rather than trying to impose our own agenda. I would like to see the promise of this new role pushing our city agenda with government rather than merely responding to government agendas and funding rounds – with a clear, long term plan, addressing the key issues locally we would have a platform to approach government from and a local agenda to pursue. The next year or so will be critical if we are to see the real change having an elected mayor could bring – over to you George to lead the way!

Bristol – a divided city?

Bristol – a divided city was the subject of a short documentary produced by BBC One for Inside Out West (sadly no longer available to view on iPlayer). The story is one of a growing city, one that on first glance seems prosperous and wealthy, but once you scratch beneath the surface and move out of the centre of the city, a poorer, less wealthy and altogether different kind of city is revealed. The programme served to illustrate just how different people can experience the same city, how different areas of a city are excluded from the growth and opportunities that others benefit from and how so far we have largely failed to provide solutions that make a real, long-term difference. Sally Challoner, BCC reporter, provided a picture of the divided city with a snapshot of some truly shocking statistics outlining just how many children live in poverty in our so called prosperous city – 25% across the city as a whole, but with massive differences depending on where you live – 53% in Lawrence Hill and 34% in Southmead, but only 1% in Henleaze.

The quote below is from Sally’s reflections in the programme on growing up in Hartcliffe and so neatly sums up the reality facing many people in Bristol –

“Of course, growing up in poverty you don’t really know any different. It’s only when you go out into the wider world that you realise that maybe your education wasn’t great, your family doesn’t have any business contacts to give you an idea of how to get into the employment market, your parents can’t help you with a deposit to get you onto the housing ladder, things like that. So you start out life with a disadvantage and spend years just trying to catch up.”

In the programme itself and in a Radio Bristol discussion the same day there were two key points raised that I thought I’d explore further, as I believe they are both flawed in their explanations and solutions:

  • With a strong economy, providing more jobs, everyone will benefit.
  • We need more money & power from government to solve the problems of poverty in our city.

The first point was made by a Tory MP and is an often quoted response to poverty and social exclusion – if we just provide growth and more jobs everyone will eventually benefit. Indeed, it’s the very argument used by the Local Enterprise Partnership and the business community for focusing our economic plans on existing growth sectors and areas rather than having anything real to say about areas and communities traditionally excluded from the benefits of growth. I am firmly signed up to the school of thought that says ‘trickle-down’ economics doesn’t work, just providing lots of jobs won’t solve poverty in our cities. Of course it helps and a growing economy is certainly better than one in recession, but growth on its own does not provide opportunities for all people and communities, it doesn’t overcome the problems that exist in the poorer areas of our cities. If it did, the growth experienced in the 1980s and beyond would have changed the social and economic map of Bristol. Instead, we find the same areas of Bristol featuring in the most deprived areas of the country now as we always have, the same ten communities with high poverty indices now as 10, 20, 30 years ago. The sooner decision makers and politicians in Bristol accept this the sooner we can move on from flawed policy approaches that clearly do not work.

The second point was made by Bristol’s Mayor, George Ferguson, and whilst I would agree that more money and/or greater ability and power to do things differently in Bristol would be a help, it will only work if we stop seeing poverty as something completely separate to economic development and growth. It reminds me of the debate about environmental issues 20 years ago, when environment was seen as separate, something that should be dealt with separately and not relevant to the council’s core business. Putting things into neat little silos is not the answer, it just makes it easier for everyone to ignore it or assume it’s someone else’s problem. That’s what used to happen to environmental issues, and it’s what we are in danger of doing with issues relating to poverty. Surely part of the answer has to be using what resources and power we already have to address poverty as part of every policy and strategy area. Why treat it separately?

Other areas seem to have taken up the mantle of combining economic development and poverty, of creating Strategic Economic Plans through their LEPs that have alleviating poverty and social exclusion as the main purpose of their plans – see an earlier blogpost I wrote on this for some examples – (Consigning trickle down to the dustbin of poverty). The challenge in Bristol is how we make this happen when the current approach appears to be about creating silos of activity – poverty according to the LEP is not their problem, someone else is dealing with that, they are just about jobs and growth. How do we encourage the business community and the LEP to see alleviating poverty as integral to the growth of the city region, to increasing out prosperity as a city and to truly achieving the potential that the whole city has? How do we ensure that future City Deal’s, Strategic Economic Plans, bids for funding and Council strategies and plans all have addressing poverty at the heart of them? A tall order no doubt, but until we do, then we are consigning the same communities to living in poverty, in a world where the divide between rich and poor is ever increasing.

The difference a Mayor makes?

DSCN0159With all this talk about devolution and the centralised power of Westminster, it got me thinking about cities and city regions, and about the role of directly elected Mayors and the difference they could make to this agenda. If there is any chance of greater devolution to the local level in England, at the city or city region level, then is Mayoral governance an effective form of leadership to take on this new, more powerful role? As it happens I spent a couple of days last week at the Policy & Politics Annual Conference* where I attended three separate sessions on “what difference do directly elected mayors make?” as well as several plenary sessions about leadership and collaborative governance – critical ingredients for successful mayoral leadership perhaps? I wrote up each of the plenaries for the Policy & Politics blog – take a look if you want to know what all these academics were talking about!

I also recently attended a debate organised by Bristol Festival of Ideas about ‘leading the green city’ which I wrote up for Bristol 24-7. The critical point from that discussion about leadership suggests that with the potential for more power to be vested in one individual at the centre of City Hall (the Mayor), there comes a responsibility to share that power with local communities.  A potentially important lesson for all areas embarking on new forms of city governance?

The academic debate about directly elected mayors is interesting, it starts from the premise that this new model of urban governance provides more visible leadership, can better handle the complexity of local government, partnership working, and collaboration. It also accepts that there is little evidence to prove that this is the case from either the UK experience or from abroad. So does having a directly elected mayor really make a difference and is it a positive difference? I don’t intend to recount all of the discussion and presentations from the two day conference, but I just thought I’d pick out a few issues that struck me as important and where there is still so much to learn about this new form of local governance and the impact it has on decision making, collaboration and leadership. This becomes even more important if there are moves for greater devolution of power to the local level, we need to be confident that the model works and can handle this extra responsibility in the right way.

Whilst there seems to be little doubt that having an elected mayor provides for a more visible leadership role and there is better clarity over who is actually making the key decisions, there are equally some key questions raised by this new model in terms of the operation of the local council, local politicians and local communities. One of the issues raised during the conference discussion was about the role of scrutiny and whether or not this is being carried out effectively where there are elected mayors. It struck me that this is part of a wider debate that goes back to the Local Government Act 2000 where proposals to move from the old committee system to new models of local government were first introduced. The model most popularly adopted was that of cabinet and scrutiny, where a cabinet was formed (normally from the majority party) to take decisions and the rest of the councillors were organised around a series of scrutiny commissions to hold cabinet members to account.

What this new system did was remove policy development from the role of ordinary councillors, it created a 2-tier/class system of councillors, and left many wondering what their role was to be. Where in the past backbenchers might well have led on topics of interest to them and have played a key role to play at committee meetings, now they were told to focus on representing their constituents and providing some scrutiny to those now responsible for taking decisions. I was a councillor at the time of this change and it was a challenging and difficult time for many of us. I didn’t seek to become a cabinet member because I had a full-time job and didn’t think I could do both justice. So I went from committee chair to scrutiny member – quite a tricky transition for me and one I didn’t particularly enjoy, and I certainly wasn’t alone in that. My reason for going over old ground and history is that I don’t think the problems associated with lack of scrutiny of Mayoral decisions is anything new, it’s not just down to the mayoral system. The problem of scrutiny has been there ever since it was first introduced, when no one quite knew how to deal with it and where councillors and officers alike struggled with the concept and how to make it work – I wrote about this a while back in a blog suggesting we should bring back the committee system because actually it worked quite well! I think the same problems persist now, scrutiny in Bristol is not well developed, it never has been. I don’t know if it works better elsewhere, but there seems a real gap between the original intentions of this change of approach to governance and the reality of how it works on the ground.

What we have instead in places like Bristol, even before we had a Mayor, is a group of councillors who wonder quite what their role is beyond local representation. It seems to increase the oppositional nature of local politics and bring out the worst in many. The new model of directly elected mayor certainly exacerbates this process, particularly where the mayor is an independent with no reference back to a specific party group. The decision making power is vested in one person, and in Bristol that means the role of the majority of the other 70 councillors has changed even more, to one of local representation and trying to hold the mayor to account. But what does scrutiny actually mean and how does it work, can it be effective when the Mayor can choose to ignore it, and are councillors well equipped to deal with it – I have my doubts, same as I did back on 2000 when the initial changes were made. So there’s certainly an interesting academic debate to be had about the changing role of local councillors and how new models of local governance can work most effectively for everyone involved – the mayor, the councillors, the officers, the community. But nothing I’ve come across so far really answers those questions, that’s not to say the research doesn’t exist, just that I haven’t found it yet!

Like many of my blogs this started as a discussion about one thing and ended up as another – my approach to discipline in writing seems to be lacking. I started thinking about the difference mayors make and ended up talking about the need to think carefully about the role of councillors and scrutiny. It’s all part of the same discussion and there’s so much more to say, but I’ll leave that for another time.

*Note – if you want to know more about the discussion at the Policy & Politics Conference, Prof Alex Marsh & Dr David Sweeting talk about the contributions on directly elected mayors in this podcast – Talking Mayors

Time for grown up politics?

Photo - Bristol1st

Photo courtesy of Bristol1st.com

I am writing this blog after reading an article in the Bristol Post by the Mayor of Bristol about what it’s like to be Mayor and the extent of the abuse and vitriol he has to put up with on a personal level everyday. Now, having been a politician myself  in Bristol, I am more than aware that local politics (and national politics) frequently descend to the petty and personal. But it does seem to me that the position of Mayor has exacerbated this side of local politics in Bristol, because it does exactly what it was meant to do, it focuses everything in on one person, it makes them the centre of attention and deflects from the other 70 councillors elected to represent people.

If you look back at why Bristol wanted a directly elected mayor all the talk was of having clear leadership, one person to act as a figurehead, and clarity of decision making. It strikes me that that is exactly what we have – we have someone who is willing to take some of those tough decisions, we all know who is responsible, there is clarity over leadership and decision making, and that’s now part of the problem. But really, why all the fuss, why the negativity and why make it so personal?

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The Slow Death of Society

DSCN0159Sometimes the idea for a blogpost comes from some research or information I have just read, other times from something that’s made me angry, or something that’s just topical, in the news and I have a view on it. This blogpost has been bubbling up for a while and is probably a reaction to all these things and may well be less coherent for that!

The title says it all really – the slow death of society – that’s what it feels like at the moment on so many levels. This isn’t just something that has happened since the Coalition Government came to office either, this is something that has been happening since even before Thatcher. Maybe it’s symptomatic of a neo liberal society or maybe we are all too conditioned to things the way they are that we fail to notice? Whatever the reason, there’s been a noticeable change in attitude in my lifetime which seems only to have got worse in recent years – and still I am waiting for the collective response that must surely happen?

When I think about the number of times over the last 10 or so years that I have heard people respond to issues/questions with ‘what’s in it for me?’ I begin to despair, of course we all have an element of self interest and indeed we do need to look after ourselves and our family/friends, but there is a big world beyond that and we seem to care less about it now then we did before, or am I wrong? Maybe I have just spent too long in the wrong places with the wrong people?

A recent example that made me both smile and bury my head in my hands was this whole issue about spikes in doorways to keep homeless people from sleeping there. This caused a massive reaction on social media, with people expressing horror whilst others reacted with stories about why it is necessary and how it is actually designed to help homeless people in the long term. I’m not quite sure where I fit on the scale of reaction but as others have said, this is nothing new, architects, designers and planners have been designing out these kind of spaces and opportunities for years. Talk to anyone involved in planning new open spaces and parks, they’ll tell you how much thought goes into the design of benches and shelters to discourage ‘undesirable’ behaviour, which often seems to include making them so uncomfortable that you wouldn’t sit on them let alone try and sleep there! What is interesting about this is that much of the reaction has focused on the symptom not the cause – which is understandable to a point, but really this is a symptom of a much broader ill. It’s about our changing attitude to the most vulnerable in society, the demonisation of the poor, the jobless, the homeless and the constant reminders that to be acceptable and provide a worthwhile contribution to our society we have to have a job, pay our way and above all, avoid any reliance on the state to support us.

This change has been playing out in our housing system for many years, where the role of the state (councils) in providing and managing housing has been gradually reduced to a residual role for the most difficult households and those in the greatest poverty. Council housing is no longer the tenure of choice for many it is a residual provision for the most needy in society (and a need we are not adequately meeting). We have shifted affordable housing provision, successfully to a point, to Housing Associations, set up to deliver on this very issue. Then, of course, we have gradually eroded their role by reducing the direct funding they receive, so they have to enter into development for profit in order to fund the delivery of affordable housing, or they have to comply with other aspects of government policy that actually make housing less affordable to those that need it. In the meantime, councils have barely been able to build new council houses and more existing council houses have been sold off under the right to buy, so fewer homes are available to those in need, meaning many more are forced into the private rented sector that is barely able to keep up and has issues of its own. In a civilised society, the provision of decent housing has to be a fundamental right, but government seems to have turned its back on this notion, unless you strive for owner occupation, then they’ll help you!

We seem to have become a nation of individuals only interested in looking after ourselves and resisting anything that might impact on our ability to do well. Again, housing is a prime example of this, as soon as we become part of the property owning democracy we also become Nimbys, we will do just about anything to stop development anywhere near us to make sure our property prices are not damaged, irrespective of the consequences for anyone else. The power of those that have, to stop those that haven’t, seems to win out regularly.

Another example is playing out in Bristol at the moment in relation to the fight over Residents Parking Zones. Much of the debate has focused on how the right of car drivers is being curtailed and how this will destroy the economy of the city. Car drivers and businesses have talked about infringement of their rights, of the Mayor being anti-car and how somehow implementing these schemes will make the city a worse place for everyone. Really? Somehow we seem to have lost sight of why the Mayor is implementing these schemes – and yes I accept that his approach and style has not helped with selling these schemes – but the concept has got to right, hasn’t it? We all want a city that is less polluted, where we can walk and cycle in safety, where we can enjoy our neighbourhoods without constant streams of cars searching for parking spaces or parking dangerously, don’t we? We want a city that works for people, that doesn’t remove or hinder people that need to drive but makes it just a little more difficult for those that use it as an easy, cheap option, without considering the alternatives and those that see our neighbourhoods merely as one big car park. I applaud George for standing strong on this, even if I wish he had implemented things slightly differently with greater engagement from the start – the concept is right even if the approach has been difficult!

But it’s not all bad is it? Look at the endless articles/blogs/research about housing, welfare, poverty, there are people that care, there are people that are raising the difficult questions. The problem at the moment seems to be that decision makers are just not listening, or they are but not properly, they snatch at easy ‘solutions’ to pretend they are doing something without any notion that they will have an impact.

What I have noticed is a society of extremes – those that don’t seem to care about anything going on around them and are only interested in themselves, but also those that do care and are trying to do something against a rising tide of indifference. Maybe the Big Society is working because many of the positive things going on are driven by local communities or charities – who set up the food banks to help those that could’t afford to feed their families? Not the government, in fact they spent more time denying they existed or challenging whether or not the people using them really needed to!

In Bristol I have seen much of this local response play out in many different forums and guises – people do care and will support others where they see a need or where they see injustice. There are too many projects to mention but one small but fascinating project that caught my eye is the Incredible Edible Bristol project, providing edible landscapes across the city, in neighbourhoods and the city centre, in parks and derelict spaces. What a brilliant idea to show how easy it is to grow food in a city with access for all. What motivated people to start that project and what motivates all those that help out with their time and money – not self interest that’s for sure.

So maybe things are not all bad, there is some semblance of ‘society’ out there, despite the best endeavours of government to destroy it over the years. We need people to continue to write about these things, we need the media to cover the issues properly but above all we need people to be motivated to do something. A few years ago I was asked to do a Q&A for the Evening Post and one of the questions I was asked was ‘who inspires you?’. My response to this initially surprised a few people, because aside from my personal heroes like Colin Ward, Mo Mowlem and Albert Camus, I mentioned Margaret Thatcher. With this came the caveat that she inspired me to get involved in politics, because I wanted to be part of the political fight against her policies and her notion of the primacy of the individual. That fight still remains, but are enough people motivated to do something? This is perhaps where my despair comes in, we seem to be a society of demotivated individuals who don’t think we can change things, where even bothering to vote is too much effort because it won’t make a difference anyway. I hope I’m wrong!

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.

Every city should have a dream!

“Every city should have a dream” according to Jaime Lerner, the three-times Mayor of Curitiba, but it has to be a dream that is desirable and brings people along with it and involves them. That was one of the key messages I took from a discussion I went to on the future of cities, organised by the Festival of Ideas in Bristol. The panel of speakers included Jaime Lerner (Mayor of Curitiba), Wulf Daseking (ex City Planner of Freiburg) and Saskia Sassen (Prof of Sociology, Columbia University), all there to share their experience and knowledge of city leadership and change.

future of cities

The discussion was quite wide ranging, but the things that stuck in my mind and where I think there are lessons we could learn from here in Bristol are based around three themes: collaboration & involvement; housing and development; and getting started.

Firstly, collaboration and involvement was discussed as essential to achieving the right kind of change. Wulf Daseking focused on involving young people and reminded us of the energy and ideas that young people bring to a city and why universities are so important to city life, whilst at the same time being critical of the American style campus style development that many universities in the UK now seem to favour, which disconnects young people from the city. He talked about Bristol University and its role in bringing young people into the city and how we should celebrate that, as well as emphasising the need for connections between universities and civic society. All this rings true for Bristol, too often we complain about students and how they have taken over parts of our city, and we package them off to live and study in separate areas on the edges of our cities (like UWE), when what we should be doing is celebrating and involving them in city life, they are after all the future of the city, the next generation of leaders, politicians, city planners etc. On a similar theme, Saskia Sassen talked about open sourcing neighbourhoods, mobilising people and bringing local knowledge to people at the centre of the city where decisions are made. A good point and an important lesson for us all – the role of local knowledge and experience is often ignored in decisions that are taken and in plans that are made, leaving communities and neighbourhoods feeling disenfranchised and disaffected. Mobilisation of all communities and neighbourhoods in the creation of the plan or vision for a city is critical, otherwise the plan is unlikely to be ‘desirable’ or accepted.

The second key message I came away with was about housing and development, about how the centralisation of power/resources/decisions in the UK makes it difficult for cities to get this right. The main lesson came from Wulf Daseking and how he managed to create a vision for Freiburg that involved a very different approach to housing that is difficult to imagine here in Bristol. There are few if any volume house builders involved in housing development in Freiburg, land is parcelled differently, in smaller plots to encourage small builders, self/custom build and cooperative housing schemes, creating a much better housing mix across new developments than we are ever likely to see in the UK. They also have a system of price fixing or land price freeze, whereby the value of the land pre and post planning permission is set at a sensible rate, so there is still profit to be made but not to the point where speculative development takes place – if only we had a set of politicians brave enough to do that in the UK, how much better could our housing developments be? New housing in Freiburg is also controlled to ensure the housing mix is right, with 1/3 for owner occupation, 1/3 private rented and 1/3 social housing – as Wulf said, the housing mix here in Bristol is all wrong and getting it wrong leads to social destabilisation.

The final point was about getting started, how do you start out on a process of change? The key message seemed to be about starting small, without a finished plan but with vision, with an idea that is desirable, that will achieve buy-in from residents and then don’t accept no for an answer. Too often we are told ‘this is not possible’ and we waste our time on people who do not want to help, we need instead to start with the attitude of ‘I’ll find a way’ and forget about waiting for central government, just get on and do it. Jaime Lerner talked about the need to challenge what isn’t right about a city and how it is developing, using the example of a previous Mayor of Curitiba developing the city around cars, and how this encouraged him to get involved – the best quote of the talk:

“traffic and highways engineers, they know how to kill a city”

So true and you can see how that has worked in Bristol and just how difficult it is to undo.

According to Jaime Lerner “the world is full of complexity sellers, we should beat them off with slippers” or put another way, “we should never be afraid of a simple solution”. Everyone is always telling us cities are complex and their solutions are complex, but there are many simple solutions out there that we could be putting in place now.

So for me the lessons are there about involvement and collaboration, a strong leader encourages challenge and involves people with different ideas, and above all else listens to people with different knowledge and experience to their own – that means not just the powerful elites and the business leaders, but the community leaders, the homeless, the young people and the activists, all of whom have as much to offer the future of our city as anyone else does. Strong leadership means having a vision and taking difficult decisions but it also means working with people who also want to make a difference.