“We need a thorough rethink of the status of cities within the UN System”

The UN building, New York. Image: Getty

Over the past two years, urban issues – from sustainability in the built environment, to inequality in cities – have become an international priority. Cities, in turn, are taking on a more important role in global politics; the growth of city diplomacy has forged hundreds of city networks and thousands of transnational initiatives.

These developments have been disrupting the established political order. Cities are now relating directly to global instruments, treaties and commitments, often bypassing states – as seen in the steps taken by many cities to implement the Paris Agreement on climate change, despite opposition from central governments.

These efforts are being met with growing recognition – not least by the United Nations (UN), which has introduced an urban focus to negotiations and agreements of international significance, such as the Sendai Framework for disaster risk reduction, the universally-binding Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and the Addis Ababa Agenda on financing sustainable development.

Perhaps the most relevant development yet, though, was when 170 of the UN’s member states agreed on the New Urban Agenda – a road map to guide the growth of cities over the next 30 years – at the Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador in October, 2016.

Yet the process leading up to and beyond Habitat III raised questions as to whether the UN is fit for purpose, when it comes to addressing major global urban challenges. These concerns materialised in the appointment of an independent panel on the effectiveness of UN-Habitat – the agency responsible for the UN’s work on human settlements and urban development.

The panel reported its findings at a high-level meeting of the UN’s General Assembly (UNGA) over 5-6 September, where I spoke for academia, offering my input on the panel’s recommendations alongside numerous other representatives and delegates involved with UN-Habitat.

Time for reform

The discussions made clear that reform is already afoot, and welcome at the highest level of the UN. As UN Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohammed said in her opening speech, the organisation now recognises that “the global response to the promise of urbanisation has been inadequate”.

Bold recommendations are needed, as too much of the urban work in the UN system is fragmented across different arms of the organisation. The stakes are high, as the reform of UN-Habitat is seen by Mohammed as a “litmus test for UN reform ambitions” – so far, a key focus for the new UN Secretary General António Guterres, who took office in January 2017.

UN Deputy Secretary Amina Mohammed. Image: United Nations Photo/creative commons.

The panel’s report called on the Secretary General to consider a substantial redesign of UN-Habitat, with universal membership across all 193 UN states reunited in an Urban Assembly (compared with the 58 states currently on the UN-Habitat board). It also called for the creation of a global “trust fund” to enhance urban sustainability efforts, as well as the introduction of a new governance structure, to include a policy board and a committee of local governments.

The report also formalised proposals to establish another UN body – UN-Urban – to act as a coordinating mechanism across UN agencies on urban matters, to be chaired by UN-Habitat. Taken together, these were seen by many as important and valuable steps for the UN to keep pace with the growing global importance of cities.

Rescue mission

Though Guterres already backed the panel’s findings in early August, discussions at the UNGA meeting cast uncertainty over a few core parts of these recommendations. Most member states reiterated the need to reform and strengthen – rather than do away or re-dimension – UN-Habitat. Even with scarce resources and scattered on-the-ground programs, the agency still commands respect for its capacity to convene and represent a variety of global interests around cities.

As such, financing UN-Habitat remains an imperative which most agree on. South Africa underlined common concerns about the dire financial situation of the agency, with Kenya even calling for an urgent “rescue package” to save it from financial failure.

But the UN’s work on cities does not stop at UN-Habitat and the New Urban Agenda, with the World Health Organisation progressively picking up an urban focus and connecting with cities in its efforts to meet the SDGs.

Power play

Reforming UN-Habitat means rethinking global urban governance. Many countries across the globe raised concerns that the proposed management structures – policy board, urban assembly, local government committee – would prove ineffective if not properly backed, coordinated and financed.

In fact, discussion on UN-Urban demonstrated substantial scepticism of the panel’s proposal, with the G77 and China (represented by Ecuador) but also the United States and Russia, emphasising the need to hold off on radical shifts.

These discussions revealed a split emerging between the status quo of some UN member states – which regard the panel’s more radical reforms with suspicion – and an increasingly proactive coalition of cities, civil society groups and businesses, which broadly supports change.

Though cities have evidently played an important role in agreements from Sendai, to Paris and Quito, some states questioned the positioning of cities as key actors in the New Urban Agenda and SDGs. The Russian Federation even suggested that the panel’s proposal was “presenting an erosion of the role of states”.

Open for debate. Image: Michele Acuto/UCL/author provided.

Given the weight of states within the UN system, it seems as though UN-Urban might not see the light of day after all, while cities’ input might be formally confined to the committee of local governments. There is a risk that the proposed reforms could widen the rift between states and cities, rather than opening the door for truly revolutionary shifts in the way the UN engages with local government.

As I noted at the high level meeting – and as evidence from numerous other interventions points out – we need a thorough rethink of the status of cities within the UN System.

The ConversationWhether this key juncture is solved, the road toward reform is still long, and may yet hold unexpected turns. Before the year is over, UN-Habitat is due to appoint a new executive director. In the meantime, the UN Secretary General and his deputy are charged with proposing and rolling out fresh changes within the broader UN reform agenda, from Spring 2018. The verdict on whether UN-Habitat will be able to bear the weight of responsibility for the urban SDGs is still some months away, but we may yet witness a more radical restructure of the UN’s urban capacities.

Michele Acuto is professor of diplomacy and urban theory at UCL.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.