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On the state of English cities

A new government report takes a small-town approach to metropolitan living.

Austin Williams

Topics Politics

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Way back in 1999, Towards An Urban Renaissance’, the report of the Urban Task Force headed by Lord Richard Rogers made over 100 recommendations for improvements in towns and cities in England, in order to rectify what it termed the ‘causes of urban decline’ (1).

Among other things, the Urban Task Force recommended that towns and cities be ‘adaptable to change’ – a process that it defined as strengthening ‘democratic local leadership with an increased commitment to public participation‘. A year later, the UK government published the Urban White Paper (drawn heavily from Rogers’ report), which recommended that the needs of the urban renaissance be at the heart of the regeneration policy (2).

Seven years later, and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) has published the State of the English Cities report (3). It is 453 pages of in-depth analysis of 56 primary urban areas with populations greater than 125,000. There are some great facts, graphs and data about the changes in city development in England, and the report concludes that ‘our cities are very much back in business’.

So what has caused this successful turnaround? What should we make of the government’s paean to city life?

In the first place, it has only been a successful turnaround if you accept the assessment and the presentation of the problem in the first place. The ODPM report asserts that cities are finally seen as ‘dynamos of national and regional economies rather than economic liabilities’. To suggest that, in the recent past, cities were widely perceived otherwise – as a drain on resources ­- is disingenuous, to say the least. Admittedly a few people, like sustainability advocate Herbert Girardet, author of the Gaia Atlas of Cities, have argued interminably that the urban footprint is excessive and that the efficiency of rural consumption patterns has much to teach the gluttonous city dwellers – but as far as most urbanists go, this has not been a mainstream position.

Worryingly, however, the anti-growth, moral agenda conveyed in Girardet’s sentiment now seems to be used regularly as a benchmark against which to judge improvements. By so doing, ministers can’t help but absorb the message that they are intending to refute.

A straw man wouldn’t have been such a bad thing. After all, by inventing a fictitious past, success in overcoming it would seem to be guaranteed. Ironically though, the straw man seems to be winning. By accepting the legitimacy of the sustainable model of urbanity as a starting point, David Miliband (the minister responsible for the report) is on shaky ground from which to pose an alternative.

The four themes of the State of the English Cities report that determine the level of improvement are: social cohesion, economic competitiveness and performance, liveability, and governance. These mirror the much-vaunted triple bottom line: social, economic and environmental sustainability (with a little bit of politics thrown in for good measure). In fact, each of these categories is more woolly than the next; and even the notion of economic competitiveness and performance has been redefined. Indeed, the report notes that the most successful places have enhanced ‘the less tangible aspects of human relationships and identities’.

Speaking of the ‘process’ of economic recovery, the report says that ‘many English cities have improved, especially in the most recent years. But many in the north and west are not yet catching up with London.’ You don’t say? Apparently, they are not doing as well because of their lack of ‘high value added, knowledge-based industries’ and a lack of global connectedness.

Burnley, it seems, simply needs to attract global finance, retain its graduate base, improve its competitiveness and it, too, can strive to be a metropolitan hub to rival the UK capital. Coincidentally, with Gill Taylor, former chief executive of Burnley Borough Council, recently becoming head of the government’s flagship Academy of Sustainable Communities (the quango charged with creating ‘local communities fit for the twenty-first century’), northern towns will increasingly become the focus of community exhortations and sustainability interventions.

‘Broader quality of life concerns’ are said to suggest ‘an intuitive hierarchy of priorities for citizens’. In this respect, economic performance must be balanced with the liveability agendas. ‘Tackling failure, such as litter, graffiti, fly-tipping, abandoned cars, dog fouling, the loss of play areas or footpaths, for many people is the top public service priority’, says deputy prime minister John Prescott.

Basically, the idea is that if places aren’t respected, looked after, maintained, and seen to be maintained by an active community, then the resulting instability threatens the logic of investment and sustainable growth. Or to put it another way: ‘where public agencies have concentrated on elements of liveability, such as cleanliness and park quality, there have been noticeable improvements.’ For the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), ‘cleanliness’ seems near to godliness, and it is currently sponsoring Chewing Gum Action Groups to reduce the investment-blocking blight of ‘gum-litter’. Indeed, following the success of portable ashtrays for smokers as part of Liverpool’s No Butts campaign, Manchester is experimenting with ‘gum-pouches, providing a clean disposal option’ (or face a £50 fine).

Sometimes, it seems that the debate about cities – English or otherwise – sounds remarkably like a parochial one and frequently reflects a lack of political ambition. The terms of the debate centre on celebrating personal behaviour, community tidiness, local accessibility, micromanagement, voluntarism, neighbourhood activism, and so on. Each of the topic headings may be interesting and worthy in their own terms to the people involved, but by making them central to political debate and insisting that they are prerequisites for meaningful change, they simply emphasise how narrow-minded metropolitan politics has become.

Promises to clean graffiti off bus shelters used to be the stuff of provincial council manifestos: now it is the very stuff of metropolitan governance through Neighbourhood Management Pathfinder schemes.

The Urban Task Force’s call for stronger localism and greater participation seven years ago started to shift the argument from one of investment and infrastructure to one of strategic public engagement. The State of the English Cities report now cites ‘greater citizen engagement in decision-making’ as one of the great value-added successes of urban policy, whereby the process of involvement in decision-making is everything, but the actual decisions are not up for debate. This is the essence of Miliband’s ‘double-devolution’ idea, whereby decisions are devolved to the local level via the interpretive offices of unelected community overseers (5).

Paradoxically, such is the emphasis on the need of regions to construct the material conditions for trust before investment can be committed that government ministers don’t really trust the regions (as they are currently constituted) to do it. As such, devolving responsibility only goes so far. The State of the English Cities report notes that ‘giving regional and local organisations more control over resources (is) in return for good performance’. It’s a strange kind of freedom and community autonomy that can be taken away if things don’t go to plan.

If one of the objectives of the State of the English Cities report is to kickstart local economies, then getting regions to believe in themselves might be accepted as a powerful motivational tool. But the report actually says that a key reason for helping the regions is to ‘reduce the pressures that growth brings to the south and east which could limit their cities’ long term sustainability’.

Surely this undermines the motivational pep-talk? After all, if growth brings unsustainable pressures, then why suggest that the northern regions go for it? Equally, if promoting the regions is principally a way of reducing ‘the pressures’ of population, infrastructure and resources on the capital, is this not a suggestion that London is too successful to cope and needs to reduce its plans for development? Either way, among other things, is this not Malthusianism writ large for the twenty-first century?

Austin Williams directed the Future of Community festival, which took place in London on 4 March 2006.

(1) Towards an urban renaissance, report of the Urban Task Force – executive summary [pdf]

(2) Our Towns And Cities: The Future – Full Report, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

(3) State Of The English Cities, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

(4) Living Places: Cleaner, Safer, Greener, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

(5) Full text of David Miliband’s speech, Guardian, 21 February 2006

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Topics Politics

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