The city as master developer | Robert Huxford

This event was held in partnership between The Academy of Urbanism and the Urban Design Group on 8th July 2015.

Chaired by Steve Bee AoU, Chairman of The Academy of Urbanism, and featuring:

John Worthington provided the context for the evening, explaining that city should be thought of as both city hall and civil society. He gave a rapid history of cities in the UK, moving from the medieval to the industrial city, where philanthropists played an important role; the 1930s where the Modernist movement tore cities apart, and the post second world war era, where a development system emerged that was deeply adversarial with developers, seen as greedy, with no sense of civic pride, and a welfare state creating a sense of dependency. It was at this time that the UK became very centralised, with typically 85 per cent of local authority funds coming from central government. Yet post-2008 there had been significant changes, including devolution and an increasing sense of the power of the citizen.

Peter Bishop praised local authorities and their importance in city government. However, there were problems with local authorities being parochial and not addressing issues outside the borough boundary, and of councillors being good at dealing with local issues but being challenged by the complexity involved in running a city. City Government is all to do with long-term stewardship, and in his view 25 years was not long in the life of a city. He commended the work of John Thorp, former Civic Architect in Leeds who, over the many years during which he served the city, had shown his ability to think outside the box, outside the city, and outside the boundaries.

Peter Studdert discussed the range of roles that a local authority needed to perform, including providing a vision, mediating between different interests, and acting as regulator and developer. However there were substantial obstacles, including multi-tiered government, (which he believed was on the wane), and a lack of powers over the things that matter, such as utilities, energy and buses. His prescription for improvement included:

  • Coherent strategic planning across economic sub-regions
  • Unitary authorities with enhanced powers
  • Joined up central government – problems exist with the Department for Transport stop-start approach to strategic infrastructure which can derail local development projects, and the Ministry of Defence failing to use its landholdings in the overall interests of the UK, but rather acting as an isolated profit centre.
  • Fiscal Devolution – making the planning system self-financing
  • A move from a regulatory to a partnership relationship with the market

Henk Bouman talked about the approach to city planning in the Netherlands, mentioning the relationship with and respect for water that has developed over the centuries, and the need to give water space. There was an analogy when it came to city planning and development and the need for flexibility.

Dick Gleeson spoke about the collaborative projects that are shaping Dublin. A picture emerged of a far more holistic and joined up approach than in the UK. There was a strong acknowledgement in the vision for the future of the city to balance six themes: economic cultural, social, movement, neighbourhood and sustainability. In addition, considerable effort was devoted to involving people and asking them about what made the place special. Finally, there was a city manager with substantial powers.

Fit for purpose city government
The ensuing discussion rapidly developed into a debate on how to think and work long-term, or at least a period greater than the four-year electoral cycle, ideally spanning a generation or two property cycles. Development corporations were another model which clearly some of the audience liked, and some didn’t. One questioner asked whether city mayors were the answer. But although the panel member noted the simplicity of his answer, good mayors were a good thing, but bad mayors were a very bad thing and could potentially spell disaster for a city. A council tended to spread the risk.

Joined-up funding
The essence of power is to be able to do things – and this means the ability to pay for them. John Worthington complained that cities in the UK had been denuded of the ability to make their own plans by the hold central government has over funds. Cities will say they have a vision for the city, but it is merely a five-year vision. Cities are more used to putting in proposals for funding to central government, not for what they want, but what they think the person who is giving them the money wants them to do. The lack of joined-up central government requires city authority to make the joins:- to apply for money from several different sources, in different government departments and agencies, to piece together for use locally in joined-up schemes. The irony is that the funds come originally from a single source: the Treasury.

Regulatory planning leads to negative involvement
There was much concern about the decline in the role and power of local authorities. Nicholas Falk urged that a distinction be made between planning and the delivery of services; another contributor went further, saying that local authorities had been reduced to low-level service-delivery organisations. Urban Design editor Sebastian Loew argued that the local authority planning function had two roles: one to provide a vision, and a second, to regulate. But the reality today was that councils were nearly 100 per cent regulatory. The ordinary citizen knew only the regulatory side of the council. Without sight of a vision for the city there would be little for the citizen to become involved in. Add to this the adversarial nature of planning, and the only way for citizens to get involved was to attack – to say no.

Peter Studdert mentioned three councillors who had worked tirelessly to win the community over regarding the development at Trumpington, explaining how people would benefit from better access to the countryside, a new secondary school for their children, and affordable homes.

Send in the clones
If some of the scientists who live in Trumpington or the wider Cambridge area can clone these councillors, then our problems will be solved. But the situation as it stands in the UK is that councillors have the responsibility for providing the vision, yet they don’t have the training or experience to do it – this felt a rather painful reality whilst sat facing a panel with over 200 year’s combined experience in city-making. They are no longer supported by a well-resourced and skilled planning service, and are mostly occupied with local service delivery and the demoralising stream of complaints that the public and press like to direct at councils. This is not the way to nurture great cities.

Thanks to Robert Huxford, Director of the UDG, who compiled this report.

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