So which English cities are actually getting devolution deals?

Steve Roteram and Andy Burnham, Labour's candidates for mayors of the Liverpool and Manchester city regions. Image: Getty.

This May, an indeterminate number of English cities, city regions and other combined authorities will elect their first metro mayors.

These mayors won’t be powerful local bosses on the American or European model – but like London’s Sadiq Khan, they will be able to promote their region, and will have a hand in tricky things like local infrastructure development. It’s quite possibly the biggest change to English municipal government in 40 years or so.

You might think then, that, four months out, we’d be able to tell you exactly how many of these new mayors there were going to be, and which cities they’d be representing. You would be wrong: while the government has been very enthusiastic in putting out press releases every time a deal is agreed, it’s tended to be less forthcoming when, with distressing frequency, they’ve collapsed once again.

But the clock is ticking, so – with a little help from Ed Clarke at the Centre for Cities – we decided it was time we started keeping track of what was going on. This week, we’re doing our best to answer an unexpectedly difficult question: which areas are actually getting mayors?

Absolutely probably definitely

First up, there are three big conurbations that are all but certain to hold elections this May.

Greater Manchester is by far the most coherent city region in England outside Greater London. Its 10 boroughs are used to working together and so, with a little help from former chancellor George Osborne, it has the most advanced and powerful deal. (At some points over the last couple of years, in fact, it’s looked plausible it might be the only deal.)

Most of the major parties have now picked their candidates for this one. The runaway favourite must be Labour’s Andy Burnham: Manchester is traditionally a left-leaning area, and Burnham is a much bigger figure than the Tory candidate, Trafford’s 29 year old leader Sean Anstee. That said, if I were forced to name a party and a politician capable of losing an apparently guaranteed election, “Labour, Andy Burnham” would be near the top of the list.

More certain in electoral terms is the Liverpool City Region (the five boroughs that once made up Merseyside, plus Halton, from Cheshire). That area is so red it would be mind-blowing if Labour's Steve Rotheram didn’t win this one.

The more interesting political tension here is actually likely to be between Rotheram as metro mayor and Joe Anderson, the existing Labour mayor of Liverpool, who failed to get the party’s nomination for the region-wide job (either because he’s not left-wing enough, or because the outer boroughs didn’t want someone from Liverpool-proper). In theory, the metro mayor is the bigger job. But at least some the power in these roles comes from their bully-pulpit function, and “mayor of Liverpool” is frankly the much better job title. This’ll be fun to watch, is what I’m saying here.

Last but not least there’s the West Midlands deal (call it Greater Birmingham at your peril). This covers the old metropolitan county: the three cities of Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Coventry, plus four other suburban boroughs.

Electorally this will be by far the most interesting, as it genuinely could go either way. Labour’s Siôn Simon is facing Andy Street, the Conservative former boss of John Lewis – and because the Tories might actually win, the government is likely to throw everything at it. Were I betting man, my money would be on Street. We’ll see.


Definitely maybe

Then there are three deals that are receiving much less attention, because the areas they cover are smaller, and so the candidates are likely to be more obscure.

The Tees Valley – Middlesbrough, Hartlepool and so forth. This lot used to be the made-up county of Cleveland, make up a pretty coherent region, and the deal is probably going ahead.

Then there’s the West of England deal: Bristol, Bath and South Gloucestershire. Like the Tees Valley one this was once a non-traditional county (Avon), but it’s lost a bit: North Somerset, which dropped out last summer. The deal will probably go ahead, but the fact not all the Avon councils wanted to play suggests a measure of fragility, as well as the tension between a Labour-voting city and its Conservative commuter belt.

Lastly there’s an area which isn’t a city region at all: Peterborough & Cambridgeshire. Despite talk, this is the only non-metropolitan region likely to get a mayor. That means it’s the only one that’s almost certain to elect a Tory next May.

There’s no reason to think these deals won’t happen – except that sometimes deals collapse over local issues that the rest of us aren’t really aware of until the last minute. Also, because they’re less visible, there’s less momentum: it’s hard to imagine the government abandoning the Liverpool deal at this point; it’s quite plausible it could abandon the Bristol and Bath one.

Even if they do go ahead, these mayors are likely to be less influential figures than those of the big city regions, in terms of both their legal powers, and their effective influence.

The big question mark

There’s one area where it’s genuinely hard to tell what’s happening. The Sheffield City Region was one of the first deals to get a green light, probably because of the support of then deputy prime minister Nick Clegg.

But it’s remained fairly tormented ever since. The deal at one stage involved councils from three counties (South Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire), so there was a row over how the financing would work. Many of the regions’ politicians demanded the extra powers and funding on offer without bothering to elect a mayor, which delayed things, further. And, inevitably there’s the “thou shalt not divide Yorkshire” lobby mucking things up, too.

At any rate, we’re four months out, and it’s not clear if the region is even getting a mayor, or who would run in the election if it did. The smart money has to be on no deal, but who knows.

Never gonna happen – or at least, not this year

And finally, a brief list of the fallen.

The North East – Big regional deal, collapsed after those councils south of the Tyne pulled out because they didn’t want a mayor. It briefly looked like there would be a north-bank-only deal, until someone realised that a metropolitan authority that included Newcastle but not Gateshead would be stupid, and the whole thing went away.

Greater Lincolnshire - “Dead, buried and will not be resurrected”, according to one local big wig.

Norfolk & Suffolk - Died after half a dozen councils pulled out.

D2N2 – Derbyshire/Derby/Notthinghamshire/Nottingham. This one’s gone suspiciously quiet but seems unlikely to happen.

Yorkshire – The demand from rural Tories for a Yorkshire-wide deal probably killed off any chance of a Leeds City Region, and may have ultimately helped finish off Sheffield too. Nonetheless, there doesn’t look likely to be a Yorkshire deal any time soon either, so well done there.

That, best we can tell, is where things stand – but, as I said at the top of this thing, there’s surprisingly little transparency surrounding this entire process. If you know better, honk.

Thanks to Ed Clarke, the Centre for Cities and the good people of Twitter for their help on this.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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“This is a civic pride for the digital age”: why we should why we should willingly let City Hall have our data

He was the future once: David Cameron discusses smart cities with Angela Merkel and a German technology executive. Image: Getty.

Victorian England. From the shadows of wealth grew poverty. Slums slumped against symbols of civic pride, cowering next to towering town halls funded through rich merchant princes, whose elitist rule was insufficient to deal with too many people in too few houses with too little infrastructure.

Enter municipality. With darkness came electric light; with disease came tunnels to disperse their cause; with time came reform, regulation and the rise of town planning.

It’s over a century since those places which first industrialised became those first urbanised; yet even the wealthiest cities in the world continue to struggle with the complexities of urbanisation. In London, ten thousand die each year from pollution; in New York, six times this amount reside in homeless shelters.On the rush-hour roads of Sydney, cars stand still, and in the ‘burbs or banlieues of Paris slums still stand.

An umbrella bought during a downpour costs more than one bough under blue sky – and the truth is that, for too, long city halls have failed to forecast and so incurred greater costs. It’s a reactive culture summed up by words first head in Jimmy Carter’s budget office: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Disease before sewer, gridlock before investment, collapse before rebuild – visible fix over unseen prevention

But with the world’s urban population growing by 65m every year, this has to change: there is not enough resource to manage cities reactively. Enter technology and the move to smart cities.

From Barcelona to New YorkOxford to Amsterdam, Singapore to Seoul: billions of low-cost devices are being installed into everyday objects to send and receive data: street lights recording pollution, and bridges reporting performance; traffic lights that count, and whose analysis will be counted upon, to ease traffic congestion; health wristbands understanding our heart’s needs, shop ceilings noting our heart’s desires. A web of information woven into the very fabric of cities which, when added to data from sources like mobile phones, is providing a living-breathing picture of how we and our cities operate.

This data is no longer retrospective or historic but live and dynamic. It is of such quantity, and can be analysed at such granular detail, that it can provide certainty where once there was only supposition. It is build-up before the gridlock, illness before epidemic; the crack of an ageing bridge, the first signs of smog. It is diagnostic to preventative. Umbrella under blue sky.

Those promoting the “internet of things”, estimated to be worth $11.1trn a year by 2025, will declare it a panacea – but it is not, at least not entirely. Sure, challenges regarding data quality, privacy, standardisation, and security will be overcome; 4G will become 5G will become 6G. Devices will communicate intelligently with each other – autonomous vehicle to autonomous vehicle, autonomous vehicle to bridge, drone to home. Data will become as fundamental to cities as infrastructure, and will be referred to as such.

Yet city halls in democracies, whilst infinitely better informed, will continue to make their decisions which are restricted by commercialism, framed by political ideology, and driven by short-term electoral or media pressures.


People first

From the mid-sixties to the start of this century a UK television programme called Tomorrow’s World showcased future living. For every correct prediction (mobile phones) came countless incorrect ones: the floating-bicycle, say, or paper underwear. My point is that only a small part of understanding the future of cities is about understanding technology. The majority is about understanding people and society, the people from whom the very word “city” is derived: civitas, the collective of citizens.

Gutenberg did not change the world by inventing the printing press in the 13th century – but he did enable the world to change. The technology was the printing press, the outputs were books filled with knowledge, the outcomes were the actions of the many who used that knowledge. Technology is a tool, a process towards an outcome. 

In much the same way, the Internet of Things will not change the world – but it will enable the world to change. Sensors are the technology, data the outputs, the analysis of this data and subsequent decisions, the outcome.

It is crucial to avoid the Tomorrow’s World approach. That is, racing to implement technology first without consideration of identified social, economic or environmental needs; introducing more complexity when most citizens seek simplicity. As the writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs once said:“First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image.”

Start with people. Form the image. Think of technology through the Greek origins of the word, techne and logos – a discourse about the way things are gained – and capitalise on collective intelligence to move towards that image.

Since cities first started to appear some millennia ago, they’ve provided incontrovertible evidence that the wisdom of crowds is far greater than the individual; that collective intelligence gained from that trinity of city institutions – citizen, government, industry – surpasses what can be achieved by any one in isolation. Where would Apple, Uber, or Google be without the government-backed inventions like the world-wide-web, touchscreen technology, WiFi or global positioning systems?

A new civic pride

Of course, an app on a smart phone that can ask a thousand questions is meaningless if nobody feels motivated to answer. Increasing urbanisation brings increasing interdependency: lives intrinsically linked, services shared. The challenge for city halls is to turn the increase in what people have in common, into an increase in common purpose, through understanding the three benefits that motivate and lead to action.

Extrinsic benefits, of status and reward, caused merchant princes to fund city halls in Victorian England: such benefits today see the ambitious putting in extra hours. Intrinsic benefits, like competitiveness or fun, that once caused business tycoons to compete to build the tallest skyscrapers, now explain why “hackathons” and “city challenges” are such a success. Then there are the pro-social benefits of altruism or benevolence, that cause millions to volunteer their time to give back and feel part of something bigger than themselves.

These motivations are of greater significance, because there are no longer people with clipboards standing on street corners asking permission to collate our views on services: it is happening automatically through the Internet of Things. Our choices online, movements offline; the travel we take, the pollution we make; our actions and interactions. We are data.

City halls can take a click-box-small-print approach to this, like so many apps. But there is opportunity to do the opposite. They can promote the fact that citizens can knowingly provide their data towards making lives better; visualise and enable citizens to see and understand their input, alongside data provided by others.

They can incentivise interaction with data, so that entrepreneurs can work back from outcomes, solve challenges, and re-localise where appropriate (we should not need a multinational to get a taxi). They can be proudly open, enabling citizens, industry and government to receive pro-social benefit by contributing to something bigger than themselves: their life and the lives of others.

This is a civic pride for the digital age. Not just localism or patriotism based on geography but the strength of connection between people and their ability to direct and determine change through data. Not just pride in the buildings and infrastructure that form our physical world, but in the quality of data that will shape our future world and move us from a diagnostic to preventative society – umbrellas under blue sky.

We should take pride in technology, yes; but that should come second to the pride in those who, enabled by that technology, drive progress. Who, through the wisdom of crowds, form an image of the future and strengthen democracy by motivating society to move towards it. Who embrace openness and help overcome the challenges of urbanisation.

Kevin Keith is a writer, researcher, urbanist, and director of the southern hemisphere’s largest open data competition, GovHack. He tweets as@KevKeith.

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