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The debate on cities has only just begun

The debate on cities has only just begun

🕔09.May 2012

The decision about an elected mayor for Birmingham has been made.  But the debate on how we run our great cities has hardly started.  Attention must be re-focused quickly on the wider question of how to empower the cities to make their full contribution to national prosperity and how local communities, the city and the city region can all benefit from this.

With hindsight the reasons for a “no” vote are many and fairly obvious, from the limited campaign for mayors by a government that finds itself in mid term unpopularity (particularly in the cities that were voting on other issues on the same day) to the lack of a clear position on the issue from Labour and what Ben Page of Ipsos/MORI has referred to as “the magnetic attraction of no”.  History shows that referendums usually produce a vote for the status quo unless change is supported by an overwhelming groundswell of opinion.

But, as Sion Simon pointed out repeatedly there was also a lack of engagement with the communities of Birmingham.  In truth, the image in  Zoe Williams’ piece in the Guardian on Saturday of a gathering at the top of the Cube, overlooking a city far below made a valid and important point.

In part this illustrates that arguments for change somehow need to engage our local councillors and the local political parties (who in turn need to do much more to engage the community).  But our city also contains a tremendous diversity of other local networks that need to be more involved in the debate about its future.

And frankly many people just didn’t like the idea very much.  While some (particularly in the media) were keen on introducing independent personalities to challenge the party political system and saw that as a strength of the elected mayor, the unedifying spectacle of the personality based contest in London must have put many off.    To my mind, this was always the strongest argument of the “no” lobby.  There are issues with the party system, but the answer is not to ignore policy all together.

But what the “no” campaign and result does not give us is an alternative agenda for change.  And change is certainly needed if the city and city region are to take on a stronger more independent role in the future.

There have been many uses and misuses of the Chamberlain legacy during the campaign.  As the “no” camp rightly pointed out, Chamberlain was not directly elected (though in an age that lacked anything remotely like universal suffrage it would have been an odd election if he had been!).  The important lesson from Chamberlain is that his period as Mayor of Birmingham demonstrated for the first time the power of local government to drive forward economic and social progress in our cities.  Chamberlain was a Liberal who later became a Tory, but without his innovations in municipal water and gas companies and the provision of decent housing, there would have been no “municipal socialism”, pioneered by Beatrice Webb (whom Chamberlain had a relationship with in the 1880s) and her husband, the Fabian  Sidney Webb.  As Eric Pickles said at a reception in the Waterhall during a recent party conference, “we are in the epicentre of municipalism – the place people came to pay their water bills!”

Chamberlain’s “best governed city in the world” was of course based on an intimate linkage between business interests and the leadership of the city.  For the first time individual business leaders realised that by taking action collectively, through the local authority, they could lower costs for all businesses and thereby generate greater prosperity for the city as a whole.  Local government would be an active catalyst for growth rather than a marginal administrative process.

Of course since the 1870s business has become national and then global and the identification with local politics has waned.  And the nature of our cities, our economy and the demands on government have all changed beyond recognition.  The question for today is how do we recreate that shared business commitment to a local government that can bring benefits for all and how do we blend this with the wider democratic accountability of modern government?

Looking to the future, we need to see city mayors as just one issue in a much wider agenda for re-empowering the cities.  In the immediate future there will be a concern that the tide of localism has once again started to go out.  As the debate over this week’s Queen’s Speech shows, a government under pressure will have other priorities – though the arguments for their interest in the cities are if anything even stronger.  The resolve of all the cities must be to reassert even more strongly their crucial role in driving economic growth.  They must work more closely together as “core cities” to develop this campaign.  And it must be a campaign that is aimed at all the political parties, not just the Government.

The governance of our cities and city regions is a complex problem that was never going to be fully addressed by one reform such as city mayors.  This became obvious during the campaign when questions were raised about the powers of the mayor and their relationship to wider economic development, transport and policing arrangements.

Few today would see city leadership as a simple matter of a single powerful leader acting alone.  And the municipalism of the past will not fit with today’s more consumerist and less diffident society.  City councils are responsible not just for promoting economic success but for the provision or oversight of vital local services across social care, the environment, education and housing.  Rapid change has been taking place in how all of these are delivered.  As well as greater autonomy and stronger leadership at the city level, there needs to be greater engagement of communities in the running of their own neighbourhoods – to which every resident can make a contribution.

Cities in the 21st Century need to somehow encompass all of these roles.  They must be linked into the global economy as well as overseeing (and joining up) local services and supporting and protecting local communities.  They need appropriate neighbourhood, city and city region structures.  Many (including some “no” campaigners) are now drawn to a wider city region mayor model, on the lines of London’s system.  On the question of the “metro mayor” many will feel that the Guardian had it right on Saturday when it suggested that a future government may need to “just get on with it”.  But however logical it is, on its own this change would also fail to address the problem of city government as a whole – and it would be less likely than a city mayor to capture the enthusiasm of citizens.

Above all, no system of city governance will be able to achieve its full potential without greater control over local tax raising, spending and borrowing (beyond the tentative measures so far taken by this and the last government).  Our cities need to be free to innovate and to be truly accountable to local rather than national democratic voices.  Our councils need to be true governments of their cities, not just service delivery arms of government departments.

Given the changes in the global economy, many people have said that the 21st Century will be the “age of the city”.  It is said that how cities are governed will play a big part in determining the future of their nations.

The positive message from the speeches at Friday’s event was that Minister for Cities Greg Clark committed the Government to continuing the dialogue about localism and working with Birmingham’s new administration.  Just as important was the recognition that during the debate over a city mayor a new activism about city leadership has emerged amongst our business networks (ansd indeed some of our MPs!).  If these foundations can be built upon, alongside a renewed commitment to engage local communities in the governance of their city, then Birmingham is well placed to become a leading player in the game ahead.

In 2007 we persuaded historian Tristram Hunt, an expert on Victorian cities and author of “Rebuilding Jerusalem” (and now a labour MP) to present a lecture on how we could recreate a sense of Chamberlain’s city in the modern era.  He concluded with these words:

“…we should think about the real meaning behind the ‘civic gospel’: a sense of the city’s purpose; visionary council leadership; autonomous city governance; a healthy civil society; belief in high quality, municipal architecture; and a conviction in the virtue of a strong public sector.  That is the route to reviving the kind of municipal life Chamberlain rightly regarded as a truly noble sphere.”

That is the debate that all who care about the future of Birmingham will now want to join.

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