What should the new North of Tyne mayor’s priorities be?

The Tyne bridges. Image: Getty.

In November 2017, out of the ashes of a previously agreed North East deal, Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland signed up to a smaller and more limited devolution deal. The government set out plans to put more money, decisions and influence into the hands of local people.

The date for the first election is set for May 2019. As polling day approaches the political parties have begun picking their candidates: in February, Labour selected Jamie Driscoll. Here we look at the three things all challengers should have front of mind as they draft their manifestos:

1. Improving education and skills

The region offers huge attractions for many people. Newcastle is one of the most affordable major cities for housing on local wages, and commuters suffer less of the peak time congestion faced elsewhere.

But rather than being a benefit, these are a symptom of local wages, skills levels and employment rates in the city-region that fall below the national average. As the chart below shows, wages are £2 per week lower in the city than the national average, and the percentage of the working age population with no formal qualifications is 0.4 per cent higher.

The correlation between the proportion of workers without formal skills (x-axis), employment rate (y-axis) and wages (bubble size).

Cities should be outperforming the national average, not trailing it, so this is where candidates should devote their attention. Increasing residents’ skills across the board will be central to improving their ability to progress into and in work. From those still in education through to those already in work, the mayor should push to deliver a system of lifelong learning in the North of Tyne. It will also increase the areas attractiveness to the high skilled firms needed to drive future economic growth.

Any skills plan should have a clear sight of the impact of automation and globalisation on the local economy. The rise of the robots or AI to carry out routine tasks means that employers are looking for different range of softer, interpersonal and analytical skills. The candidates should recognise that their skills policy needs to be robot-ready and prepare local workers in the city-region for the future.

The devolution deal signed with the government makes clear that improving schools and skills is the primary ambition of the councils involved; this is absolutely the correct focus. Work is already underway and is aligned to and predates Centre for Cities’ calls for metro mayors to create skills compacts. Any prospective mayor should understand these plans and how they take them further.


2. Work beyond boundaries

The Centre for Cities definition of Newcastle’s economic impact is not limited to the north banks of the Tyne. Gateshead and South Tyneside are an integral part of a single built-up area with one functional economy. More than one in three of Gateshead’s residents commute to work North of the Tyne, as do 18 per cent of those in South Tyneside.

But while residents in these areas will have a material interest in the policies of the mayor, they will not have a say in May’s election. Despite this being less than ideal, Centre for Cities welcomed the North of Tyne deal as a victory for pragmatism over perfection. However, from day one, the incoming mayor should work as closely and collaboratively with partners across the Tyne to develop a joined-up economic policy that reflects how people live their day-to-day lives crisscrossing the river.

If successful, this may even prove the worth of the mayor to south of Tyne leaders, and the importance of having a say over who holds the job, by the time of the next election in 2024.

3. But beware the limitations of metro mayors’ powers

As we have seen in other city regions, a North of Tyne mayor, elected with 100,000-or-so votes, is likely to become the voice of the entire city-region to the government and media.  Most voters are unlikely to check the exact division of responsibilities for local public services and they will expect the mayor to fix problems outside of their control.

While mayors have informal ‘soft’ powers to convene, cajole and sometimes castigate local and national partners, their ‘hard’ powers are still limited and funding relatively small compared to the budgets of local authorities.  In fact, the North of Tyne mayor has even more limited powers than other metro mayors, lacking powers to franchise buses or lead on city-region transport as enjoyed elsewhere.

The candidates should, therefore, avoid the temptation to make big promises on popular public concerns that they don’t have the formal power to deliver on, such as ending rough sleeping. While they can use informal influence to make changes in areas such as this, as Andy Burnham has shown in Greater Manchester, they should not stake their mayoralty around them.

Instead, candidates should prioritise improving the outcomes of the things they do have control over. This means improving skills and helping people into work as set out above, and leading on strategic regeneration projects and transport infrastructure improvements. This will be a challenging job on its own.

The North of Tyne deal is a chance to get started on dealing with the significant challenges the region faces. It’s up to candidates now to set out how they will grasp that chance.

Simon Jeffrey is a policy officer at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

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How China's growing cities are adapting to pressures on housing and transport

Shenzhen, southern China's major financial centre. (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

In the last 40 years, the world’s most populous country has urbanised at a rate unprecedented in human history. China now has over 100 cities with populations greater than a million people, easily overshadowing the combined total of such cities in North America and Europe. 

That means urban policy in China is of increasing relevance to planning professionals around the world, and for many in Western nations there’s a lot to learn about the big-picture trends happening there, especially as local and national governments grapple with the coronavirus crisis. 

Can Chinese policymakers fully incorporate the hundreds of millions of rural-to-urban migrants living semi-legally in China’s cities into the economic boom that has transformed the lives of so many of their fellow citizens? The air quality in many major cities is still extremely poor, and lung cancer and other respiratory ailments are a persistent threat to health. Relatedly, now that car ownership is normalised among the urban middle classes, where are they going to put all these newly minted private automobiles?


Yan Song is the director of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s Program on Chinese Cities and a professor in the school’s celebrated urban planning department. She’s studied Chinese, American, and European cities for almost 20 years and I spoke with her about the issues above as well as changing attitudes towards cycling and displacement caused by urban renewal. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

American cities face very different challenges depending on which part of the country they are in. The Rust Belt struggles with vacancy, depopulation, and loss of tax base. In coastal cities housing affordability is a huge problem. How do the challenges of Chinese cities vary by region?

Generally speaking, the cities that are richer, usually on the eastern coastal line, are facing different challenges than cities in the western "hinterland." The cities that are at a more advantaged stage, where socio-economic development is pretty good, those cities are pretty much aware of the sustainability issue. They're keen on addressing things like green cities.

But the biggest challenge they face is housing affordability. Cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Hangzhou are trying to keep or attract young talent, but the housing prices are really, really high. The second challenge is equity. How do you provide equal, or at least fair, services to both the urban residents and the migrants who are living in the city, to alleviate some of the concerns around what the government is calling “social harmony?” 

Then the cities in the hinterland, typically they are resource economies. They are shrinking cities; they're trying to keep population. At the same time, they are addressing environmental issues, because they were overly relying on the natural endowments of their resources in the past decades, and now they're facing how to make the next stage of economic transition. That's the biggest divide in terms of regional challenges.

These urban centers rely on migrant workers for a lot of essential services, food preparation, driving, cleaning. But they live tenuous lives and don't have access to a lot of public services like education, health care, social insurance. Are Chinese policymakers trying to adopt a healthier relationship with this vast workforce?

The governments are making huge efforts in providing basic services to the migrants living in the city. They're relaxing restrictions for educational enrollment for migrants in the cities. In health care as well as the social security they are reforming the system to allow the free transfer of social benefits or credits across where they live and where they work [so they can be used in their rural hometown or the cities where they live and work]. 

In terms of health care, it's tough for the urban residents as well just because of the general shortage of the public health care system. So, it's tough for the urban residents and even tougher for the migrants. But the new policy agenda's strategists are aware of those disadvantages that urban migrants are facing in the cities and they're trying to fix the problem.

What about in terms of housing?

The rental market has been relaxed a lot in recent years to allow for more affordable accommodation of rural-to-urban migrants. Welfare housing, subsidised housing, unfortunately, skews to the urban residents. It's not opened up yet for the migrants. 

The rental market wasn't that active in previous years. But recently some policies allow for more flexible rental arrangements, allowing for shared rentals, making choices more available in the rental market. Before it was adopted, it’s prohibited to have, for example, three or more people sharing an apartment unit. Now that’s been relaxed in some cities, allowing for more migrant workers to share one unit to keep the rates down for them. You see a little bit more affordable rental units available in the market now.

I just read Thomas Campanella’s The Concrete Dragon, and he talks a lot about the scale of displacement in the 1990s and 2000s. Massive urban renewal projects where over 300,000 people in Beijing lost homes to Olympics-related development. Or Shanghai and Beijing each losing more homes in the ‘90s than were lost in all of America's urban renewal projects combined. It didn't sound like those displaced people had much of a voice in the political process. But that book was published in 2008.  How has policy changed since then, especially if people are more willing to engage in activism?

First of all, I want to make a justification for urban renewal in Chinese cities, which were developed mostly in the ‘50s and ‘60s. At the time, [in the 1990s] the conditions weren’t good and allowing for better standards of construction would inevitably have to displace some of the residents in older settlements. In my personal opinion, that wasn't something that could be done in an alternative way.  

Still, in the earlier days, the way of displacing people was really arbitrary, that's true. There wasn't much feedback gathered from the public or even from the people affected. In the name of the public interest, in the name of expanding a road, or expanding an urban center, that's just directed from the top down. 

Nowadays things are changing. The State Council realized they needed more inclusive urban development, they needed to have all the stakeholders heard in the process. In terms of how to process urban development, and sometimes displacement, the way that they are dealing with it now is more delicate and more inclusive.

Can you give me an example of what that looks like?

For example, [consider] hutong in Beijing, the alleyway houses, a typical lower-density [neighbourhood] that needs to be redeveloped. In the past, a notification was sent to the neighbours: “You need to be replaced. You need to be displaced, we need to develop.” That's it. 

Nowadays, they inform all different sorts of stakeholders. They could include artists' associations, nonprofits, grassroots organisations that represent the interests of the local residents. Then they [the citizens groups] could say what they really want to preserve. “This is what we think is really valuable” and that will be part of the inputs in the planning process. Some of the key elements could possibly be preserved. They  [the authorities] also talk about the social network, because they realized that when they displace people, the biggest loss is the social network that they have built in the original location. So, it's not only conserving some of the physical environment, but also trying to conserve some of the social network that people have.  


(STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Speaking of urban renewal, there was a big emphasis in the ‘90s and 2000s on highways. A lot of auto-oriented development in Beijing, following more of a Los Angeles than New York model. There's this quote I saw from Hong Kong architect Tao Ho, during the 1990s development of Pudong in Shanghai, warning against replicating “the tall buildings and car-oriented mentality of the West." 

In the ’90s or the first decade of the 21st century, most cities in China were still making mistakes. When I was a student, in the late '90s, I was translating for the American Planning Association. At the time, Beijing was still taking out the bike lanes and the planners from APA were telling them: “No, don't do that. Don't make that mistake." 

In the past decade, that's not occurring anymore. It has been happening [adding bike lanes] for a couple of years in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen. More attention has been given to improving the service quality of green transportation, upgrades to buses, the bike lane system, and so on. 

As China got richer, bikes became a symbol of poverty and, like you said, urban planners began removing bike lanes. Cities like Nanjing and Shanghai considered banning bikes from the central city entirely. 

For a long time, bike lanes were abandoned and the road surface was more devoted to the car. But in the past few years this has been changing, more road space has been given to bus rapid transit and to bike lanes. The attitude giving precedence to the private car is giving way.

Another thing they are trying to do is behavioural change, teaching younger generations that biking is cool, creating a new set of values that's more sustainable. In some major cities, you see educational campaigns, posters around the cities, [saying] bicycling is really cool. 

A recent paper you worked on looked at air quality in Chinese cities and found they are still struggling. The paper cited a study suggesting “that Chinese cities face the worst air quality across different cities around [the] world based on an extensive research of 175 countries.” Your paper recommends transit-oriented development and significant green outdoor space. Is that something you see policymakers adopting?

Yes, definitely, although with regional variations still. The eastern and southern cities are seeing more policies toward transit-oriented development. They are adapting smart technology too. For example, Hangzhou, which is the model of smart cities, the tech tycoon Alibaba installed sensors on every single traffic signal there. Then they were using technology to change the light, so when they detect a higher volume of traffic, they streamline the green lights and the red light wouldn't stop the cars, so there are less carbon emissions at the intersections. They showed that there was a reduction of up to 15% emissions. 

What about in terms of parking policy? How are policymakers trying to deal with the influx of cars in these cities? Are there parking minimums like in many American cities?

I was visiting Hangzhou in December, their “Smart City” headquarters there. They were trying to use technology to let people know where there's parking, so they don't have to drive around, which increases carbon emissions. In other cities, like Shenzhen, they were increasing the parking fee in the downtown by 50 yuan, or seven US dollars an hour. That's pretty high in the context of Chinese cities. It was 10 or 20 yuan before. So, just increasing the parking cost in the downtown area so that you discourage people from driving.

What are you working on now?

My new research is still on air quality. We had a really cool collaboration with a counterpart of Google Street Map. In China, that’s Baidu StreetMap. We asked the company to install another sensor on their cars when they take pictures. We added a sensor for air quality. So, we will know at a street level what are the current emissions by geolocation, by time. That will be really cool when we have all that data. 

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer for CityMetric.