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.

Bristol needs more homes

Social housing in ViennaBristol needs more homes, particularly affordable homes, an undeniable fact, with over 14,000 on the council waiting list and many more people living in overcrowded, unsuitable and poor quality housing. Others are forced to travel long distances everyday to get to work in the city because they can’t afford to live here. So what’s the council doing about it? Well affordable housing was a key issue in the Mayoral election, it was top of the agenda, alongside transport, pushed there by Marvin Rees (Labour candidate) and picked up by the current Mayor in his manifesto. But have we seen any real change?

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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.