The last few weeks have galvanised my thoughts about a new way to think about the economic, physical and social wellbeing of our cities. The most critical question seems to be how can city authorities proactively and positively manage cities in order to support their economic prosperity and the related job and business growth with the obvious positive impacts on the quality of life and opportunities for people? What is apparent is the need to understand and be able to strategise, act and lead within the context of different or emerging spatial geographies, institutions, power relationships and funding realities.
Last week we saw the announcement of the terms of reference for the “City Deals” with the publication of “Unlocking growth in cities”. In the deals with be struck between Whitehall and the core cities, it is apparent that the world of local government may be about to change, and potentially fundamentally. The devolution will need to relate to power and monies, but will have to be matched by the right style and qualities of leadership within local government and their private sector partners in the form of the LEPs.
Through conversations about the pros and cons of having a city mayor in Bristol, the final event of the Centre’s Cities Network programme discussing City Leadership and asking what forms of governance can help cities grow, and our event last night to launch our report on the buoyant cities of the Greater South East, city leadership emerges as a key thing to get right.
But what has changed and is it so different?
Throughout the sessions what came through most strongly both from speakers and attendees was that a “new view” of city leadership and city management does seem to be starting to take hold. In thinking and strategising about what to do to grow the economy and jobs, the city region is time and again being underlined as the right spatial scale at which to think, prioritise and lead. For example, if we are to have mayors, the logic of having city-region, rather that local authority based mayors has become ever more clear. Also, and as importantly, what is required is a sophisticated understanding of the interlinked nature of town and cities, where they compete and where they should collaborate, what the inherent strengths and weaknesses of places are and how to create policies and action that are place specific, while also recognising that the economy of places is very dynamic and needs to be constantly re-evaluated and understood.
This all sounds familiar but issues also emerge about how city leaders can build their confidence and ability to take on new powers which inevitably brings increased responsibility and risk. The diagram below which summarises the “old “and “new view “of how to manage cities seems to ring true with many in cities, business and Whitehall.
Empowering cities to define their needs and potential to grow and then to act and invest accordingly, will not result only in a transfer of monies and power, but also responsibilities and risk. What is needed is not simply a sophisticated understanding of what to do, but also how to do it, and for local government to develop a more savvy and informed approach to managing and investing monies in new ways.
While there is much in the “new view” to be welcomed, the onus is now on each city to properly realise their own vision for their future, and in hand with government work out the steps they need to take to get there. A new age of city autonomy begins here.