Places that haven’t secured a devolution deal may have to wait until 2020

Who's that guy on the right? Bit familiar. Nope, can't place him. Image: Getty.

In the last few years of George Osborne’s time in government, it was a fairly safe bet that any major speech by the chancellor would bring significant announcements on the devolution agenda. His last budget in March, for example, included new devolution deals for the West of England and Solent city regions; and the key moment of his final speech to Conservative Party Conference as chancellor brought the landmark announcement on the devolution of business rates.

However, predictions for the first Autumn Statement under Theresa May’s still relatively new administration were harder to make. While the new chancellor Philip Hammond had made it clear that Britain has “passed a tipping point in devolution”, it remained to be seen whether his enthusiasm for the devolution agenda would match that of his predecessor.

What did seem certain, however, was that this Autumn Statement was likely to mark the cut-off point for any places hoping to secure and implement devolution deals in the foreseeable future. Here are four reasons why:

1. Time constraints

Electoral Commission guidance on the metro mayor elections stipulates that legislation for new devolution deals which include a mayor should be introduced in Parliament at least six months before elections take place. But with the first metro mayor elections scheduled for May 2017, places currently without a deal are running out of time to secure one in time to meet the Commission’s deadline.

And with the second mayoral elections due to take place in 2020 (to bring them in line with London’s mayoral elections), it’s unlikely that the government would countenance the idea of holding separate mayoral elections before that point (in 2018, for example) for places which fail to agree a deal for next year. A two year term would not give new mayors nearly enough time to build their institutions, raise their profile, and demonstrate results to voters before second elections in 2020. Indeed, this will be a difficult enough job for the 2017 cohort of mayors in the three years they have in office.

2. The government’s commitment to devolution beyond current deals is unclear

While the government has emphasised its commitment to the existing devolution deals for major city-regions, it has shown little indication that it will pursue more deals for other places, or that it is open to renegotiating the terms of current deals.

When local leaders in the North East failed to reach agreement on how to progress with their deal in September, the government did not step in to salvage the agreement – instead telling local leaders that the £900m deal they turned down in September was now “off the table”. While that deal may be resurrected on a smaller geographical basis and for a smaller financial settlement, it won’t be as a result of active government intervention.

Beyond 2017 the government’s devolution priorities, if they have any, are as likely to be about doubling down on places with established deals such as Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, as they will about extending devolution deals to a whole raft of new places. Andrew Percy, the Northern Powerhouse Minister, has already said that a greater share of Local Growth Funding will be allocated to those places with a mayor than those without.

This doubling down approach is even more likely if the Conservatives win a couple of the mayoral contests, such as the West Midlands and West of England.


3. Other issues will consume the government’s attention

With Brexit negotiations likely to drag on for the next two years at least, and the current business secretary Greg Clark (who has been pivotal in driving the devolution agenda) now focused on delivering the government’s new industrial strategy, the reality is that devolution will come some way down the government’s priorities list in comparison. Places which hope to open negotiations on a new or revised deal are therefore likely to be disappointed.

4. Leaders in many places don’t want a devolution deal on the government’s terms

Communities secretary Sajid Javid has been clear that in order for places to gain a devolution deal, they will need to introduce a metro mayor. This proved the sticking point for local leaders in the North East, and in recent weeks has also led to the collapse of tentative agreements for places such as Greater Lincoln and Norfolk and Suffolk. It is also likely to deter leaders in other parts of the country from putting forward proposals for a deal in their area.

So while cities with nothing confirmed should continue to try to work with government to get deals in place, it is unlikely they will be able to secure anything that matches those deals already agreed before 2020.

Simon Jeffrey is a researcher and external affairs officer at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

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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.

Trade-offs

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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