Here’s what England’s new mayors should do to deliver prosperity

Andy Street, the new mayor of the West Midlands. Image: Getty.

Imagine waking up on the morning after an election to discover that you have been granted a personal mandate to govern. There are not many politicians in the UK who have experienced that feeling.

The mandate received by prime mministers and local government leaders goes way beyond winning the right to represent an area. What little remaining faith people have in politicians is placed in these individual leaders to make important decisions on their behalf. It is no doubt an exciting feeling. It should also be a daunting one.

Last week, six new “metro mayors” woke up to this special experience. They have been granted powers over their domains which far exceed the limited functions available to traditional council leaders. These powers are still relatively feeble compared to mayoralties in other developed democracies, but at the very least they have access to a 30 year strategic investment fund and some influence over education, skills, housing and transport in their areas. Now it’s time to see what they do with these powers, and how they respond to the mandate they have been given.

There is an extra source of pressure bearing down on these new metro mayors. The woeful imbalance of the British economy towards London and the City is well documented, but the Brexit vote last year revealed with added potency the breadth and depth of discontent around the country. It showed the urgent need to start building a new economy that allows people, no matter where they live, to take real control over their lives. That means finding ways to support local economies to thrive. And that puts the new metro mayors at the front line of this battle.

To do this, the new mayors will have to go beyond the usual prescriptions for regional development. For too long, central government and big business have assumed that attracting high-growth sectors through infrastructure, housing and city centre regeneration is the ticket to prosperity for the UK’s regions.

In reality this cookie-cutter approach tends only to attract mobile populations of high-skilled and well resourced people, rather than delivering for existing communities. It leads to housing which too few can afford, and jobs for which too few have the requisite skills. Moving skilled people away from London and into the regions is not the same thing as rebalancing the economy.

If you want to know whether the mayors are delivering real prosperity – the kind of prosperity that genuinely empowers existing communities in the areas they represent – then ignore the usual headline stats of “gross value added”, inward investment or total employment. In six months or a year, check back on their performance and ask whether they are doing these three things:

Are they building up local supply chains?

Without local supply chains, the money you bring into the region doesn’t flow through local businesses but instead goes towards national or international profit margins. Some of that investment may go on local wages – but unless a substantial amount of it is being spent on local contracts, simply looking at a total inward investment figure in the economy doesn’t actually mean it is making its way into the local economy.

Are they providing good quality, well paid jobs for local people?

There is a huge difference for people who live in the region between development which offers them good jobs that didn’t exist before, and development which can only function by rapidly attracting a workforce which was already doing those jobs in other parts of the country to come and live and work in the region.

Realistically, you probably need a bit of both – but regional economic development will only benefit local communities if it’s designed to build on the skills and expertise of the local population in a steady and sustainable way – not if it is only based around shifting jobs and the workforce that goes with them from London up to another region.

Are they building local infrastructure in a way that helps new wealth to accumulate locally?

It matters where you build housing, where you build retail space, and who gets first dibs on owning retail space in areas of wealthier residents.

It matters how you design your transport system: if you build a “hub and spoke” train or metro infrastructure, you tend to draw labour in from outlying town centres into a large city hub, sending them home with most of their pay packets already spent in the city centre and on the transport itself, which ends up starving local economies and high streets outside of the city centre.

There are lots of more exciting and innovative ways to think about planning and transport, but if the focus is simply on increasing overall “gross value added” then many of the opportunities to spread wealth around the region and to different communities simply get missed.

It will not be easy for the new mayors to deliver this kind of real prosperity. Pressures from central government, from UK-wide business lobbies and from other vested interests will start to bear down on them quickly. That post-election euphoria will wear off fast.

But as they go about their business, they should remember the precious cargo they are carrying. Voters have placed their trust in them to help them achieve what they are yearning for – real economic progress, and some control over future prospects for themselves and those they love. Over the coming months and years, we will be watching closely to see whether the new metro mayors can deliver.

Rachel Laurence is principal director for communities and localities at the New Economics Foundation. This article previously appeared on our sister site, the Staggers.


Owning public space is expensive. So why do developers want to do it?

Granary Yard, London. Image: Getty.

A great deal has been written about privately owned public space, or POPS. A Guardian investigation earlier this year revealed the proliferation of “pseudo-public spaces”. Tales of people being watched, removed from or told off in POPS have spread online. Activists have taken to monitoring POPS, and politicians on both sides of the pond are calling for reforms in how they are run.

Local authorities’ motives for selling off public spaces are normally simple: getting companies to buy and maintain public space saves precious public pounds. Less straightforward and often overlooked in this debate is why – given the maintenance costs, public safety concerns and increasingly unflattering media attention – developers would actually want to own public space in the first place.

To answer that question it’s important to note that POPS can’t be viewed as isolated places, like parks or other public spaces might be. For the companies that own them, public spaces are bound up in the business that takes place inside their private buildings; POPS are tools that allow them, in one way or another, to boost profits.


In some cities, such as Hong Kong and New York, ownership of public space is a trade-off for the right to bend the rules in planning and zoning. In 1961 New York introduced a policy that came to be known as ‘incentive zoning’. Developers who took on the provision of some public space could build wider, taller buildings, ignoring restrictions that had previously required staggered vertical growth to let sunlight and air into streets.

Since then, the city has allowed developers to build 20m square feet of private space in exchange for 80 acres of POPS, or 525 individual spaces, according to watchdog Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space (APOPS).

Several of those spaces lie in Trump Tower. Before the King of the Deal began construction on his new headquarters in 1979, he secured a pretty good deal with the city: Trump Tower would provide two atriums, two gardens, some restrooms and some benches for public use; in exchange 20 floors could be added to the top of the skyscraper. That’s quite a lot of condos.

Shockingly, the current president has not always kept up his end of the bargain and has been fined multiple times for dissuading members of the public from using POPS by doing things like placing flower pots on top of benches – violating a 1975 rule which said that companies had to provide amenities that actually make public spaces useable. The incident might suggest the failure of the ‘honour system’ under which POPS operate day-to-day. Once developers have secured their extra square footage, they might be tempted to undermine, subtly, the ‘public’ nature of their public spaces.

But what about where there aren’t necessarily planning benefits to providing public space? Why would companies go to the trouble of managing spaces that the council would otherwise take care of?

Attracting the ‘right sort’

Granary Square, part of the £5bn redevelopment of London’s Kings Cross, has been open since 2012. It is one of Europe’s largest privately-owned public spaces and has become a focal point for concerns over corporate control of public space. Yet developers of the neighbouring Coal Drop Yards site, due to open in October 2018, are also making their “dynamic new public space” a key point in marketing.

Cushman Wakefield, the real estate company in charge of Coal Drops Yard, says that the vision of the developers, Argent, has been to “retain the historical architecture to create a dramatic environment that will attract visitors to the 100,000 square feet of boutiques”. The key word here is “attract”. By designing and managing POPS, developers can attract the consumers who are essential to the success of their sites and who might be put off by a grubby council-managed square – or by a sterile shopping mall door.

A 2011 London Assembly Report found that the expansion of Canary Wharf in the 1990s was a turning point for developers who now “assume that they themselves will take ownership of an open space, with absolute control, in order to protect the value of the development as a whole”. In many ways this is a win-win situation; who doesn’t appreciate a nice water feature or shrub or whatever else big developer money can buy?

The caveat is, as academic Tridib Banerjee pointed out back in 2001: “The public is welcome as long as they are patrons of shops and restaurants, office workers, or clients of businesses located on the premises. But access to and use of the space is only a privilege and not a right” – hence the stories of security guards removing protesters or homeless people who threaten the aspirational appeal of places like Granary Square.

In the US, developers have taken this kind of space-curation even further, using public spaces as part of their formula for attracting the right kind of worker, as well as consumer, for nearby businesses. In Cincinnati, developer 3CDC transformed the notoriously crime-ridden Over-The-Rhine (OTR) neighbourhood into a young professional paradise. Pouring $47m into an initial make-over in 2010, 3CDC beautified parks and public space as well as private buildings.

To do so, the firm received $50 million  in funding from corporations like Procter and Gamble, whose Cincinnati headquarters sits to the South-West of OTR. This kind of hyper-gentrification has profoundly change the demographics of the neighbourhood – to the anger of many long-term residents – attracting, essentially, the kind of people who work at Procter and Gamble.

Elsewhere, in cities like Alpharetta, Georgia, 3CDC have taken their public space management even further, running events and entertainment designed to attract productive young people to otherwise dull neighbourhoods.

Data pools

The proposed partnership between the city of Toronto and Sidewalk Labs (owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet) has highlighted another motive for companies to own public space: the most modern of all resources, data.

Data collection is at the heart of the ‘smart city’ utopia: the idea that by turning public spaces and the people into them into a vast data pool, tech companies can find ways to improve transport, the environment and urban quality of life. If approved next year, Sidewalk would take over the mostly derelict east waterfront area, developing public and private space filled with sensors.

 Of course, this isn’t altruism. The Globe and Mail describe Sidewalk’s desired role as “the private garbage collectors of data”. It’s an apt phrase that reflects the merging of public service and private opportunity in Toronto’s future public space.

The data that Sidewalk could collect in Toronto would be used by Google in its commercial projects. Indeed, they’ve already done so in New York’s LinkNYC and London’s LinkUK. Kiosks installed around the cities provide the public with wifi and charging points, whilst monitoring traffic and pedestrians and generating data to feed into Google Maps.

The subway station at Hudson Yards, New York City. Image: Getty.

This is all pretty anodyne stuff. Data on how we move around public spaces is probably a small price to pay for more efficient transport information, and of course Sidewalk don’t own the areas around their Link Kiosks. But elsewhere companies’ plans to collect data in their POPS have sparked controversy. In New York’s Hudson Yards development – which Sidewalk also has a stake in – ambiguity over how visitors and residents can opt out of sharing their data when in its public square, have raised concerns over privacy.

In Toronto, Sidewalk have already offered to share their data with the city. However, Martin Kenney, researcher at the University of California at Davis and co-author of 2016’s ‘The Rise of the Platform Economy’, has warned that the potential value of a tech company collecting a community’s data should not be underestimated. “What’s really important is the deals Toronto cuts with Sidewalk may set terms and conditions for the rest of the world," he said after the announcement in October.

The project could crystallise all three motives behind the ownership of POPS. Alongside data collection, Sidewalk will likely have some leeway over planning regulations and will certainly tailor its public spaces to its ideal workers and consumers – Google have already announced that it would move its Canadian headquarters, from their current location in Downton Toronto, into the first pilot phase of the development.

Even if the Sidewalks Lab project never happens, the motives behind companies’ ownership of POPS tell us that cities’ public realms are of increasing interest to private hands.

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