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!

Advertisements

From benefits to bricks – IPPR report

After so many different pronouncements on housing and welfare in particular over the last few months, it was great to see a centre-left think tank produce a comprehensive view on a range of policy areas – IPPR’s report on ‘The Condition of Britain: Strategies for Social Renewal‘. Whilst this is by no means comprehensive, it is a good starting point for some policy discussions around the key issues of power devolution, encouraging engagement and joining up approaches to tackling complex social problems. I was encouraged by much of what is in the report, its focus and its conclusions – even if some appear somewhat random. Whilst the report covers six main areas: families; young people; working life; housing; crime and exclusion; and older people, my focus is on the housing ideas discussed and the recommendations that are drawn out. It is clear that with the endorsement of Ed Miliband and others in the Labour Party, the recommendations in this report may well form a key part of Labour policy for the next election, so may need to be taken seriously.

Continue reading

Housing Crisis – Confusion Abounds!

DSCN0285Oh no, not another blog on the housing crisis! There seem to be so many at the moment and just as I think about writing one, someone gets there before me with many of the issues I was going to write about. So why am I bothering? Well over the last few weeks I’ve come across some interesting examples of good and bad policy and practice that impacts on housing and I’ve written about some of it briefly in different blogs or articles relating to different topics, but now seems like a good time to bring some of it together, as a contribution to this ongoing debate. So read on if you can bear to!

I’m certainly not suggesting I have the answers or solutions, but merely some thoughts on the type of issues that need addressing and some examples of just how much better they are addressed elsewhere. Also, my take on some of the solutions offered by others is that on their own they won’t work, but maybe together and combined with other things there are some answers out there that might just make a difference, we’re just not joining things up properly. And that’s about joining up locally as much as it is about joining up centrally at national policy level, not all the blame rests with central government, local councils can be just as much at fault for contributing to the problem.

What strikes me most about some of the debate is the serious lack of any strategic planning in the UK at the moment. Ever since the abolition of the Regional Development Agencies and the Regional Spatial Strategies we have been left with a void of strategic planning, reinforced by the Localism Act and its emphasis on local councils taking control of decisions about the supply of housing. So we have a government that says it wants to build more homes but which refuses to set targets for local councils to meet. Local councils when agreeing their plans listen to the voices that shout loudest, those that want to preserve and protect. In cities that means all those that want to keep derelict or green spaces close to their houses just as they are and in more rural areas that means those intent on protecting every blade of grass from any form of development. The outcome is fewer homes planned for in Local Development Frameworks and fewer sites allocated for development and fewer houses built (a slightly simplistic overview, but you get the point?).

Interestingly, a recent case in North Somerset may well be the catalyst to change some of this, although the final outcome is still awaited as the council have yet to respond in detail to the ruling (for more detail see an article I wrote for Bristol 24-7). Effectively, the council has just been told its plan is likely to be considered unsound and doesn’t comply with national policy because it doesn’t make enough provision for new homes, according to a Planning Inspectors report, brought about after a challenge from Bristol University. Previously, the councils immediate response to the removal of national targets was to take over 10,000 houses out of its plans. The council is now having to reconsider that approach and accept that their assessment of need doesn’t fit with that of the most recent planning inspectors view, which brings into question the whole underlying approach of ‘self-containment’ at the heart of their plan. It both baffles and bemuses me how a council that sits so close to Bristol and its boundary can draw up a plan that tries to ignore the relationship with the city, but that’s what they did!

The lesson to be drawn from this, in my view, is that some form of national target for house building is critical. The Regional Spatial Strategies were by no means perfect, were hated by many and perhaps weren’t in place long enough to judge quite whether or not they would have delivered, but something that takes an overall strategic view of growth and the need to plan for it over a longer period has got to be better than what we have at the moment. A proper process of negotiation and compromise to agree local targets to help meet national targets has got to be better than the current conflict based approach where councils do one thing, developers challenge and government inspectors then impose housing numbers and changes to plans that have already been agreed locally.

Another issue that struck me relates to this whole debate about taxing housing and/or land. This seems to be something that rears its head every now and then, and used to be something that changed with every change of government, post 1947 when the Planning Act was first introduced. For me the critical point is about land value increases secured as a result of planning permission, again something that has been long debated, and is pretty unlikely to hit the agenda under the current government. Now I wouldn’t go as far as to suggest that landowners shouldn’t be able to benefit financially from securing planning permission on their land, but in my view there needs to be some control on this, to reduce speculative permissions and development and to enable more affordable developments to take place. Perhaps we could try something like the system used in Freiburg, where there are few if any volume house builders as land is bought up by the council and parcelled off in smaller plots to encourage small builders, self build, custom build and cooperative housing schemes, something we see very little of in the UK. Over there they have a system that freezes land prices, where the value of land pre and post planning permissions is set at a more sensible rate, so there is still profit to be had but not to the extent of the land market over here. Now surely that makes land for housing more affordable which in turn makes housing more affordable – doesn’t it?

Understanding cities and how they operate seems to me to be critical to this debate about housing, most of us now live in cities and urban areas and that trend looks set to continue. The notion that we can keep cramming our cities with higher and higher density housing, using up every last piece of green space, without thinking about the impact this has on the people living in those communities and neighbourhoods is just plain daft. But that seems to be what is happening, there are constant cries that there is plenty of brownfield land to be developed, we don’t need to expand our cities and encroach on that sacrosanct piece of land that is the great British greenbelt. Well, sorry, but I disagree. Many people don’t want to live in high density areas, they don’t want to live in apartments without gardens, and they don’t want to live in urban spaces with no greenery or green space to enjoy. So at some point, something has got to give and as a town planner myself, I would rather it gave in a planned and coordinated way than a speculative, unplanned manner that will only lead to development in all the wrong places. I think it is time to have a proper grown up debate about the green belt, about expanding our cities and their boundaries to encompass sustainable growth along transport corridors, where local facilities can be planned in to meet community needs, whilst at the same time preserving and protecting valuable green space within and outside cities and creating new ‘green belts’ where they are needed.

The problem with all this is it means some form of government intervention, which pretty much goes against the grain of recent and current thinking. The focus instead is on relaxing state intervention, particularly when it comes to our planning system, as there are constant calls for fewer regulations so developers can get on and build. Or intervention is focused on the individual, through schemes like Help to Buy, rather than on a collective need requiring wider intervention which might actually make a difference.

So the debate continues, as I am sure will the many housing blogs, as government, both local and national, fails to get to grips with the issues and fails to make the difference that is needed.

 

Who really governs our cities?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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