After Brexit, the case for more powerful local government in England will become stronger than ever

Not an ITV crime drama, but the key to a brighter future. Image: Getty.

For many cities and regions across the UK, Brexit carries profound risks. It seems highly likely to trigger a period of economic instability, as investors seek a better understanding of the on-the-ground realities of a post-EU Britain, as the pound responds to changing economic conditions and as new relationships are established in Europe and beyond.

Leaders of local authorities – already feeling the impact of a decade of austerity and sluggish growth – are worried about their futures under Brexit. In August, Plymouth City Council became the first to issue a legal challenge to the British government over Brexit, requesting information and analysis about possible impacts on the local area. And in October, the eight metropolitan mayors called for further devolution and increased funding under Brexit.

But do these local leaders have the capacity to bring about the changes necessary to deliver a better future for cities and regions? Our research from 2017 suggests that places in England too often lack the leadership they need to achieve a prosperous and secure future.

Odd one out

We compared local leadership in England with Finland, Germany, Italy, Australia and the USA, and found that England was – in some important respects – the odd nation out. When we asked local leaders how they would respond to either a major economic shock or opportunity, the pathway to effective action was far less certain and much less transparent than elsewhere.

For example, in England, local leaders said that they would work within networks of firms to develop complex strategies involving the public and private sectors on the ground, while also seeking central government support. By contrast, in Finland, Germany and Italy the relevant mayor would take charge, with support from their professional staff and central government.

There have been some shifts toward the European model, with the introduction of combined authorities and elected mayors in some parts of the UK from 2011. But according to the participants in our study, this move has added complexity and could reduce coordination in local government, as new ways of working had to be found when previously important roles, such as local authority chief executives and council leaders, were forced to concede some control.

Even so, the local leaders we interviewed also saw this move as adding to the legitimacy of local leadership, because the mayors are directly elected, as well as providing a focal point for community mobilisation and buy-in.

Yet there is a real gap between public expectations of mayors and their formal powers and authority in the UK. And since not all parts of England have mayors, it’s harder for elected leaders to assert their influence at a national level, share their experiences with others and find collective solutions to the problems in their cities.


An ad hoc approach

Local leaders in England have also found it difficult to build momentum and public support for devolved forms of governance. The private sector has a prominent role in local governance through their role on Local Enterprise Partnerships and through prominent business member organisations. Some of the participants in our research saw this as a strength, but they said it also brought uncertainty and ambiguity.

They felt that the reliance on interpersonal relationships between key people in the private and public sectors resulted in an ad hoc approach to local issues and initiatives. There was little learning from past experience, so every challenge required a bespoke approach. As a result, responses tended to be reactive rather than strategic, and short term rather than comprehensive or systematic.

As it stands, England’s local leaders do not seem to be in a good position to ensure a smooth transition through Brexit. National economic and political processes have a significant influence on the well-being of cities and regions in the UK, and Westminster holds its power tightly. In Europe and elsewhere, local leadership has a greater impact on local economic performance.

A new role

Brexit will reshape the UK economy and society, as well as how the nation is governed. There is a strong case to introduce mayors in other English cities and to allow them to take a greater role in political life. Elected mayors could, for example, have an important role working with central government to determine what powers might be repatriated to a local level, after Brexit. So far, they’ve had little opportunity to negotiate.

Mayors are also well placed to act as ambassadors for their local areas by developing strategic partnerships with elected leaders and business interests in Europe and beyond, effectively bypassing central government. Yet they currently lack the powers and prestige of their European counterparts.

There is also scope for elected mayors to influence national and global debates by acting as a united force to demand greater devolution after Brexit. But it’s clear that some elected mayors in England are in a better position to negotiate with central government than others, because of their public profile and perceptions of competence.

Greater devolution will be necessary to empower local leaders to look after the interests of their citizens, while the UK repositions itself in the global economy. Sharing power at the local level will be an important step to greater prosperity and political stability in the nation, after Brexit.

The Conversation

Sarah Ayres, Reader in Public Policy and Governance, University of Bristol and Andrew Beer, Dean, Research and Innovation, University of South Australia.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

“Every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap”: on the rise of the chain conffeeshop as public space

Mmmm caffeine. Image: Getty.

If you visit Granary Square in Kings Cross or the more recent neighbouring development, Coal Drops Yard, you will find all the makings of a public space: office-workers munching on their lunch-break sandwiches, exuberant toddlers dancing in fountains and the expected spread of tourists.

But the reality is positively Truman Show-esque. These are just a couple examples of privately owned public spaces, or “POPS”,  which – in spite of their deceptively endearing name – are insidiously changing our city’s landscape right beneath us.

The fear is that it is often difficult to know when you are in one, and what that means for your rights. But as well as those places the private sector pretends to be public space, the inverse is equally common, and somewhat less discussed. Often citizens, use clearly private amenities like they are public. And this is never more prevalent than in the case of big-chain coffeeshops.

It goes without saying that London is expensive: often it feels like every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap. This is where Starbucks, Pret and Costa come in. Many of us find an alternative in freeloading off their services: a place to sit, free wifi when your data is low, or an easily accessible toilet when you are about in the city. It feels like a passive-aggressive middle-finger to the hole in my pocket, only made possible by the sheer size of these companies, which allows us to go about unnoticed. Like a feature on a trail map, it’s not just that they function as public spaces, but are almost universally recognised as such, peppering our cityscapes like churches or parks.

Shouldn’t these services really be provided by the council, you may cry? Well ideally, yes – but also no, as they are not under legal obligation to do so and in an era of austerity politics, what do you really expect? UK-wide, there has been a 13 per cent drop in the number of public toilets between 2010 and 2018; the London boroughs of Wandsworth and Bromley no longer offer any public conveniences.  


For the vast majority of us, though, this will be at most a nuisance, as it is not so much a matter of if but rather when we will have access to the amenities we need. Architectural historian Ian Borden has made the point that we are free citizens in so far as we shop or work. Call it urban hell or retail heaven, but the fact is that most of us do regularly both of these things, and will cope without public spaces on a day to day. But what about those people who don’t?

It is worth asking exactly what public spaces are meant to be. Supposedly they are inclusive areas that are free and accessible to all. They should be a place you want to be, when you have nowhere else to be. A space for relaxation, to build a community or even to be alone.

So, there's an issue: it's that big-chain cafes rarely meet this criterion. Their recent implementation of codes on bathroom doors is a gentle reminder that not all are welcome, only those that can pay or at least, look as if they could. Employees are then given the power to decide who can freeload and who to turn away. 

This is all too familiar, akin to the hostile architecture implemented in many of our London boroughs. From armrests on benches to spikes on windowsills, a message is sent that you are welcome, just so long as you don’t need to be there. This amounts to nothing less than social exclusion and segregation, and it is homeless people that end up caught in this crossfire.

Between the ‘POPS’ and the coffee shops, we are squeezed further by an ever-growing private sector and a public sector in decline. Gentrification is not just about flat-whites, elaborate facial hair and fixed-gear bikes: it’s also about privatisation and monopolies. Just because something swims like a duck and quacks like a duck that doesn’t mean it is a duck. The same can be said of our public spaces.