It’s a bit early for lists of the best things of 2018, but my favourite book was “Our Towns” by Jim and Deb Fellows, based on their 100,000 mile trip round smaller US cities and the city led renewal and community action that is thriving. I recommend it. It’s hard to see from this side of the pond, but the party divisions which are paralysing Washington are much less of an issue locally. Whilst national politics are totally dysfunctional, cities and towns are just getting on with what they need to do. I recently got back from a trip to Chicago and the Aspen Institute’s City Lab conference in Detroit, which is sponsored by the Bloomberg Foundation. This year it focussed on the places that aren’t London, Frankfurt or New York. A few reflections:
In a time when trust in national Government and institutions is falling and national politicians are increasingly seen as too focussed on party political manoeuvring, then the strong mayor model creates the opportunity to use political influence locally to join up investment and get things happening in ways that communities can really see.
Our Mayoral model in the UK is a good start, but cities lack the power that they have in many other countries. This all stems from HMT’s obsession with maintaining central fiscal control – so that all local funding is a generous gift from the centre. But this is a system derived from historical convenience rather than modern economic or political necessity. One of its effects is to make any local tax or funding a matter of national party politics and policy rather than local determination, which in an economy as large as the UK is both unnecessary and removes a vital source of political and financial flex. And before anyone says council tax referendum or business rates levy, let’s be clear that both are deliberately wrapped in so many restrictions by national Government as to effectively render them unusable tools.
Most other countries manage to give cities more tools to do the job. Mayors and local council leaders in the UK need to be both allowed and encouraged to make the case for local tax increases, where hypothecation for specific projects or outcomes will be much easier to sell and deliver. Whilst we often look enviously at the flexibility enjoyed by US cities in particular, without also noting that a far greater portion of the funding burden is met by philanthropy. Ultimately, whether it’s locally or nationally raised, allocating taxpayer’s cash will always and rightly be a political issue. The challenge is to let local politics take more of the strain.
Globally, national governments are struggling to keep up with the pace of change in how data and technologies are driving the evolution of transport systems, working patterns and opportunities to rethink services and alter behaviour. Cities are at the sharp end and have to find ways of investing in the capacity to be clever clients and innovators, not buying systems and solutions. And in the UK future funding for growth has to be designed in a way that enables this to happen.
Capital led physical regeneration has been both popular and relatively well funded the UK over much of the last 20 years. But it isn’t the answer for the communities and sections of city populations that feel left behind by recent growth, whether through housing affordability, low value jobs or work poverty. Building communities rather than places is a good watchword – because it means investing in the social and business networks and spaces that connect people with ideas, opportunities and services.
With Westminster engaged in an inward looking obsession that is no less paralysing than Washington’s, surely now more than ever UK cities need the tools to get things done and the courage to insist that both political parties recognise the benefits of a more local approach.