Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Urbanism and the case for devolution


Yesterday I went public with a view I've coddled for a while. It is the answer to a question I've posed a few times - why is US and European writing on urbanism so more varied and interesting than our home grown British writing?

British writing and research on urbanism - or regeneration as it is more commonly badged - is trapped in the idea that central government distributes money. Ever more intense screeds are penned about 'multiple deprivation', 'place-based intervention' and the iniquities of how government sets policy. The industry cuddles up to ministers and lobbies for 'business-led' structures to manage the delivery of projects or developments.

Over the years since Michael Heseltine stood on a derelict site in Liverpool and Margaret Thatcher visited similar in Teeside, out regeneration models have been stuck in the same policy groove skipping a replaying the same actions and merely rebadging them as new, as thinking outside the box. In truth, with the exception of Neighbourhood Renewal Fund, nothing changed - either with policy or, more importantly, on the ground.

And here is the problem - a problem that still persists in Britain today. Policy is determined by central government and the funding distributed to those who comply with that policy. There is a great deal of talk about delivery, about innovation and about transformation. But nothing much changes - these are just fine words, no parsnips are buttered.

The reason why urbanism is more exciting in the US, in Holland and in Germany is simply because the creators of policy in urban places don't have to wait on central government for either guidance or money. The situation where West Yorkshire has to crawl up the backside of the Department of Transport in order to get a little dribble of funding for a mass transit system simply wouldn't apply - the money would be raised locally and spent locally.

Across the USA new approaches and ideas are tried - and you only need to read blogs like The Urbanophile or Project for Public Spaces to see the creativity of many US cities and communities. These ideas - good and bad, effective and disastrous - are part of the debate at local level as groups campaign for and against programmes rather than, as in the UK, mostly lining up to shoot down developments.

If we want this dynamism, wish to rediscover the Victorian passion that created out great cities, we have to unshackle local government from central government's apron- and purse-strings. I'd argue that we also need directly elected mayors, fewer city councillors and more everyday activities devolved to community, town, village and parish councils - but the central need is to end the current situation.

Every time Bradford Council meets in full session we pass resolutions asking for the Chief Executive to write to one minister or another, to lobby local MPs or otherwise seek to influence central government decisions. I'm pretty sure that council meetings in Columbus, Montpelier or Freiburg aren't making these sorts of decisions. They don't need to, they have the powers to act, to get things done - there are no central government planning inspectors, no second-guessing on borrowing permissions, no bureaucracies that must agree before anything can be done.

If we want a better urbanism in Britain, we need to set local government free and allow it to innovate, create, succeed and fail. With local voters not inspectors or Whitehall bureaucrats as the arbiters of that success of failure.


1 comment:

J Johnson said...

At some point when the governance takes the turn it usually does the people will step in.
Perhaps not too many at first but then things begin to change.
If people always feel shackled to the government they will forget they can stand up and do things to help themselves.
A good example from the U.S. is what is happening in Detroit. There's a grouping of videos in the link,the first 4 are the ones directly related to my thoughts on government and people.
It also shows what happens when government is so destroyed by it's own cost that it collapses. Probably not the place for this but I thought it might be inspiring to some.