A Tale of Two City Strategies

Posted by

Cities are firmly back on the political map. Just before Christmas, both the Scottish and UK Governments launched their thoughts on how we do more with and for our cities.

Related posts

In Scotland, ‘Agenda for Cities – Scotland’s Cities: delivering for Scotland’ was published by Nicola Sturgeon, who carries this brief as well as health. It is the result of an intensive collaborative exercise over three months between the Scottish Government, the six Scottish Cities (Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Dundee, Inverness and Stirling) and a number of key stakeholders.

politicians have woken up to what economists and environmentalists have been saying for years about cities and have decided there is a need to both assist our cities and insist they work harder for the benefit of all of us

At about the same time, the UK Government published ‘Unlocking Growth in Cities’, which was aimed primarily at the eight English core cities (Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield) and laid out both a challenge and an offer to free up each of these cities to maximise their potential.

As these reports both show, politicians have woken up to what economists and environmentalists have been saying for years about cities and have decided there is a need to both assist our cities and insist they work harder for the benefit of all of us.

To add to the policy mix, the Green Deal consultation document was published the month before and the Portas Review was also published in December. The street level approach of the Portas Review identifies a crucial dynamic in the evolution of city strategies and policy-makers will ignore what it has to say about the malaise at the heart of our urban centres at their peril – throughout the UK.

With the Scottish and UK developments there are two national policy initiatives running in parallel, when fourteen UK cities (the English ‘core’ 8 plus the Scottish 6) have a rare opportunity to ride a national policy initiative to help shape their own future. However, this does also raise questions about the direction of travel for two other devolved capitals – Belfast and Cardiff and what is happening with their devolved administrations.

In Summer 2011, Grant Thornton published its ‘Sustainable Cities’ report, mapping out the context and prospects for the future development of cities, so it is good to see such a strong policy focus on cities both north and south of the border.

There are key questions to consider when considering UK and Scottish government policy on cities. What are they looking to achieve? What are the similarities and differences between the two policy initiatives? Will they ultimately benefit cities, citizens and deliver a sustainable framework for creation of jobs and economic growth? How directive can and should these national initiatives be? Are they comparable in a meaningful sense?

Both governments have adopted pretty much the same point of departure, which is economic growth. What is interesting is the subtly different routes that the reports take from there.

Setting aside the differences in the demographics and governance ‘Agenda for Cities’ has collaborative origins. It involved the six cities from the outset and rests on the presumption that partnerships and co-operation between cities, government and intermediating bodies and organisations will deliver benefits for all. The language of collaboration is threaded throughout the document and it resonates with the often used phrase ‘Team Scotland’.

Paradoxically, ‘Agenda for Cities’ is ‘national’ in a sense that’ Unlocking Growth’ isn’t. However, by including all of Scotland’s cities, including the two whose combined populations are smaller than many other urban areas in Scotland , the Scottish government will need to show that the non-city areas of the country are not disadvantaged. Paisley, for example , must feel particularly left out as will other large urban areas not fortunate enough to be designated cities – Dunfermline and Kirkcaldy for example .

‘Agenda for Cities’ also signals potential institutional change , promoting the concept of a Scottish Cities Alliance, with a leadership and delivery structure and on the ground Action Teams to make it all happen, supported by a Scottish Cities Knowledge Centre and a “Cities Investment Network”. The resultant diagram probably comprises all the component parts needed to make a strategy work, but there are a lot of boxes on one diagram, with a lot of roles and responsibilities to allocate. How will delivery of this critical agenda interface with democratic accountability and how quickly can we move from words to action? All of this remains to be worked out.

Overall, notwithstanding the collaborative origins of the report, the proposed governance structure looks fairly directive, creating a Scotland-wide concept, setting the direction of travel and asking delivery teams to follow the blue-print. There are some critical differences between the strategies for cities north and south of the border. Some of these come from the landscape in which they operate already. English authorities don’t have a ‘concordat’ with government, so Scottish cities already have some of the discretion being offered to English cities. On the other hand, LEPs [Local Economic Partnerships ] don’t exist in Scotland, so engagement between the public and private sectors is bespoke, on a city by city basis.

A directly elected mayor appears to be a vital element in the UK government’s proposals for English cities

There are some key differences that seem to flow from policy preferences and perspectives of the role of cities.

England appears willing to fundamentally change the balance of power between local and central government in exchange for clearer, more accountable governance at a city level. A directly elected mayor appears to be a vital element in the UK government’s proposals for English cities.

Scotland’s approach is predominantly investment-focused, without raising any questions of governance.

In essence, England appears to be saying that a step change in the performance of cities and their regions can only be achieved by a step change in how they are governed. The very title, ‘Unlocking Growth’, suggests that there are blockages in the system that need to be fixed, and while passing the ball back to the cities, offers to help with these and loosen the reins of central government control, so there is an explicit offer of more “tools” to enable cities to deliver more growth.

The role of the private sector is clearly articulated in the English proposals, whilst the Scottish paper’s narrative about the role of the private sector is less strongly described.

The Scottish report may be seen by some as a missed opportunity and as placing the Scottish Agenda for Cities on a slower track. We now have an opportunity to see two distinctive city strategies tested in parallel with a richer policy debate emerging. Only time will tell which of them will lead to more prosperous cities, because ultimately it’s delivery that counts.

Nathan Goode works in the Infrastructure and Government Advisory teams in Scotland and Northern Ireland for Grant Thornton, and specialises in eGovernment, health, renewable energy and waste projects00

Share this:
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments