What does cities policy look like in Scotland and Wales?

The Scottish Parliament at Holyrood, Edinburgh. Image: Getty.

With the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Plaid Cymru claiming to speakt the interests of Scotland and Wales respectively, it might be expected that cities in the devolved administrations might play have played a bigger role in the parties’ recent manifestos than their UK-wide counterparts. Yet, this has not always been the case – and much more could be done by nationalist parties to promote economic growth in their urban areas to benefit growth of the wider nation.

So – to what extent do the parties’ pledges affect cities in Scotland and Wales in particular? And how would devolution to the national level impact further devolution to the Scottish and Welsh cities?

Since the SNP formed their first majority in Holyrood in 2011, discussions on cities have been ongoing – but from the perspective of Westminster, getting powers to Scotland has always been the priority.

While in government, the SNP has supported the use of language around city regions and investigated how to make the most of them: they published an Agenda for Cities (revised in 2016); established the Scottish Cities Alliance; and promoted City Region Deals. Six years later, three city region deals (for Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness) have been signed, the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal is expected sometime soon, and three more deals are in the pipeline.

In the recent general election, the SNP has confirmed its commitment to city deals and will campaign to get the UK government to meet the funding requirements included in those deals. But city deals are not the same as devolution. They only offer some powers to local leaders and have not been expanded beyond their initial agreement.

The challenge for Scotland is that the Local Government & Devolution Act only applies to England and Wales: it will be down to both Holyrood and Westminster to make the most of the biggest Scottish city regions in particular by considering new governance models, and the devolution of key strategic powers.

These are important shortfalls the SNP should be mindful of if it is to deliver growth across Scotland. Of course, a national election, rather than a general one, would be the most appropriate place to discuss these issues. But now it’s been confirmed as the third UK party, the SNP should use its influence both in Westminster and in Holyrood not only to bring powers back to the devolved administration but also to unlock devolution to Scottish cities.

If the pledges made for Scottish cities by the SNP are limited, those made by Plaid Cymru for Welsh ones are non-existent.  The party mainly focuses on delivering prosperity across Wales as a whole, without any particular pledge for cities. Scotland and Wales have different devolved powers and economies, and SNP and Plaid have different political relevance, yet the role of cities as drivers of growth is still of value for Wales too. Both Cardiff and Swansea have already secured City Deals, but this should only be the first step to further devolution.

In line with their views on cities in general, the other parties, with the exception of the Conservatives, did not even mention cities in devolved administrations in their manifestos. Labour – coherent with its “devolution where there is appetite for it” approach – simply pledged to establish a Scottish Investment Bank to support development there, but didn’t commit to anything more specific for Welsh and Scottish cities.

Cities in the two nations received more attention in the Conservative manifesto. The party pledged to open a British Business Bank branch in Edinburgh and one in Newport, and to continue the investment in capital and infrastructure projects in the two nations. In addition, the Conservatives have committed to building on the Cardiff Capital Region and Swansea Deals as well as promoting cross-border economic development between the cities of Cardiff, Newport and Bristol.

Being subject to a national parliament on top of the UK-wide one is a double-edged sword for cities in devolved administrations. In principle, this should mean receiving better and more tailored attention, but in practice it often means having a third party to fight for powers with.

The Scottish Parliament only has a handful of cities to deal with, and this should be reflected in better deals for them. But the ‘double-devolution’ process is slowing down the pace for Scottish cities and has led to limitations to the powers they can be handed from Westminster. The Welsh settlement means that cities like Cardiff have more of an advantage, and could even follow the metro mayor route, should they wish to.

National assemblies, both in Wales and Scotland, should be keen not only to bring powers back to their nation. But they should also ensure those powers won’t stop at the state level but go to the cities that can best support their national economic growth potential.

Elena Magrini is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose website this article originally appeared.


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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