From Australia to the Netherlands, governments have introduced city deals. But what are they?

Bordeaux, a city with a city deal. Image: Getty.

In the constant churn of new localist initiatives the government has unveiled since 2010, you could be forgiven for forgetting about City Deals. When Nick Clegg and Greg Clark introduced them in December 2011, they talked a good game, describing City Deals as the key to “empowering cities to achieve local growth”. But without the kind of money attached to Growth Deals, or the political intrigue that comes with metro mayor devolution, they were never going to capture public attention in the same way.

There’s something odd about how City Deals have shrunk into the background, though, because much more than other parts of the localism agenda, they seem to be part of a genuine global trend in urban policymaking. Where the creation of metro mayors looks like the UK grappling with its historical legacy of unusual centralisation, City Deals are popping up everywhere.

France introduced its first contrats de ville in 1989; since 2011, Australia and the Netherlands have both launched their own City Deal agendas. Professor Greg Clark – an urbanist at University College London, with no relation to the former cities minister, though entertainingly they have co-authored a report – describes these initiatives as part of a trend, connected to the latest phase in the development of global cities.

So it does seem strange that City Deals, modelled on the French experience and an inspiration for other countries’ policy, have fallen by the wayside. But there’s a reason for it, which is that City Deals aren’t really a global trend at all. The policies that different governments are calling ‘City Deals’ have almost nothing in common, apart from the way they use exciting branding and a passing reference to how other countries have tried this to distract from the lack of a coherent framework for making urban policy.

Take the UK. After the fanfare of the initial announcement, the government launched into negotiating City Deals with the eight core cities. Those deals were signed off in mid-2012, but when the National Audit Office came to assess their effectiveness in 2015, it found there was nothing very decisive it could say.

That was partly because not enough time had passed, but mostly because it was never very clear what City Deals were for:

“The government intended that City Deals would empower local civic leaders. The Unit did not specify what ‘empowerment’ should look like, or how it would be measured… it did not prescribe what arrangements local leaders should make. This makes it difficult to conclude on the success of the deals in terms of the government’s stated objective to create local empowerment.”

Maybe that’s a little bit unfair. We can say pretty confidently that Britain’s City Deals were designed to move powers and funding to cities and make them responsible for their own economic development.

But this is enough to know that they’re effectively the opposite of City Deals in Australia, which are an attempt by the federal government to involve itself more in urban policy, which is typically the responsibility of state and local governments.

Australia didn’t have much in the way of a national cities policy between 1975 and 2010, and City Deals are the latest step in the government’s attempt to change that by using the leverage of national infrastructure funding. They’ve been very explicitly sold as based on the British policy, despite their dissimilarities.

This is, seemingly, on the basis of a 2014 report by KPMG Australia which described UK City Deals as if they were primarily a vehicle for delivering national investment in infrastructure, rather than for driving a devolution agenda. It’s been a convenient way of marketing and arguing for the policy, but it doesn’t have much connection to reality.

Still, at least the Australian City Deals really are attempts to get agreement from different levels of government on a plan for the whole of a metro area, like the UK deals they claim to be modelled on. If you look at, say, Bordeaux’s contrat de ville, you’ll find that the first article is a list of suburbs to which the deal applies. These quartiers prioritaires are chosen on the basis of their deprivation, and the goal of the contrat is to improve social inclusion and the performance of these suburbs compared to the rest of the urban area.


This kind of focus on identifying and addressing urban disadvantage has a long pedigree, but it’s almost the inverse of the more recent City Deals, which aim at cities in their entirety and see place-based policy as a positive key to growth, not just a remedial measure for pockets of urban poverty.

And then there are the Dutch City Deals, which are so fundamentally unrelated that you don’t even need to speak Dutch to realise it. A quick glance at the relevant government website reveals that Amsterdam has signed no less than six separate City Deals, on different topics and in partnership with different combinations of other Dutch cities.

The City Deals agenda in the Netherlands is in fact not a place-based urban policy at all, just a way to create more collaboration and local input for thematic policy about economic development, clean energy, digital innovation, and so on. That’s laudable – but it certainly doesn’t have much to do with what’s happening in the UK, Australia or France.

So is the common branding just a coincidence? The Australian marketing exercise strongly suggests not, and reveals what’s really going on here. A deals-based urban policy has quite sharp limitations. City Deal-type arrangements lead to a set of fragmented, widely varying schemes in different cities that fit under some vague national policy ‘pillars’ but aren’t really driven by a systematic framework for how to improve cities.

But it can instantly achieve local buy-in because, even if they’re not in love with the concept, no city wants to miss out on advantages that are going to others. Local governments try to work out how to get a deal for their area, and local businesses and universities hope to get something for themselves.

And so, in the rush of stakeholders jockeying to get involved, the policy immediately looks like a success. If you can make it seem like part of an emerging global trend, even better.

The author tweets as @FergusPeace.

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How US planners experimented with “the iron hand of power” over colonial Manila

Manila in ruins, 1945. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1904, Manila must have appeared to its new overlords a despairing prospect. Racked with poverty and disease, it was still recovering from years of war, epidemic and a fire that had left 8,000 homeless.

For architect Daniel Burnham, it was an opportunity to put to work the radical ideas he had dreamed of in America.

He was among those asking how America’s unprecedented wealth at the turn of the century could be reconciled with the lives of the country’s poorest. Like many, he admired the ideas of harmonised city-planning articulated in Edward Bellamy’s bestselling science-fiction Looking Backward (1888).

At the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Burnham constructed the “White City”. Built across 686 acres of parkland, boulevards, gardens and neoclassical structures rendered a spray-painted plaster vision of the future – all laid out to one comprehensive plan.

It was impressive – but implementing grand designs where people actually lived meant laborious negotiations with citizens, businessmen and politicians.

Instead, opportunity lay in America’s new overseas territories. As Daniel Immerwahr describes in How to Hide an Empire: A Short History of the Greater United States, “They functioned as laboratories, spaces for bold experimentation where ideas could be tried with practically no resistance, oversight, or consequences.”

An architect’s dream

The US had gone to war with Spain in 1898, taking advantage of an empire-wide insurrection. It ended up controlling the entire Philippines, along with Guam and Puerto Rico.

As a “territory”, the Philippines existed outside the protections of the constitution. Congress could impose any law, proclaimed the attorney general in 1901, “without asking the consent of the inhabitants, even against their consent and against their protest, as it has frequently done.”

Which is how Burnham, upon invitation by the Philippine’s new rulers, came to wield what the Architectural Record called “the iron hand of power” over Manila.

 Burnham’s plan for Manila. Click to expand.

Where Burnham’s Chicago plan was complex, took years and entailed collaboration with hundreds of citizens, Burnham spent six months on the Manila plan, and just six weeks in the Philippines. And with no voters to persuade, there seemed little reason to register Filipino input in his designs.

In 1905 Burnham submitted his Report on Improvement of Manila. It described filling the toxic moat of the Spanish fortress Intramuros and developing a rectangular street system modelled on Washington D.C., with diagonal arteries which even Chicago lacked.


Central to his plan was the city’s beautification through monumental buildings, waterfront improvements, and parks – “wholesome resorts” to “give proper means of recreation to every quarter of the city”

Burnham charged William E. Parsons as the omnipotent “Consultant Architect” to interpret his plan, who relished its authority over all public building as an “architect’s dream”. When concerned with the extent of his purview, he also chose to standardise a number of public buildings.

“I doubt if this method would bear fruit in our own city improvement plans, in which everything depends on slow moving legislative bodies,” reported the Architectural Record’s correspondent.

Despite Burnham’s colonial sentiments his biographer concluded his plan was “remarkable in its simplicity and its cognizance of Philippine conditions and traditions.”

His plans did not shy from asserting the colonial government’s authority, however. The Luneta, a favourite park, was to become the nuclei of government. The city’s avenues would converge there, for “every section of the Capitol City should look with deference toward the symbol of the Nation’s power.”

Unusual monumental possibilities

Burnham also worked on a summer palace for US administrators at Baguio, 150 miles north in the mountains. On land inhabited by Igorot people, Burnham saw an opening “to formulate my plans untrammelled by any but natural conditions”.

Baguio’s “unusual monumental possibilities” were facilitated by a road whose construction employed thousands, risking death from disease and falling off cliffs. Civic buildings would “dominate everything in sight” and a golf course would rival those of Scotland.

“Stingy towards the people and lavish towards itself,” griped La Vanguardia, the government “has no scruples nor remorse about wasting money which is not its own.”

As enthusiasm for US empire soured in the States, local power was relinquished to Filipinos. Parsons resigned in protest in 1914. He was replaced by Manila-born Juan Arellano, whose rebuke to imperialists was the mighty, neoclassical Legislative Building which hosted the elected Philippine Legislature. Arellano upheld Burnham’s plan, producing a beautified city bearing resemblance to Burnham’s White City.

But the Legislative Building, along with Burnham’s great edifices and almost everything else in Manila, was levelled as US troops recaptured it in 1945, this time ousting the Japanese in a brutal battle. “Block after bloody block was slowly mashed into an unrecognizable pulp”, recorded the 37th Infantry Division as they exercised their own “iron hand” over Manila.

American artillery had transformed Manila into ruins. “It was by far the most destructive event ever to take place on US soil,” writes Immerwahr, even if few soldiers realised they were liberating US nationals at the time. Burnham’s expansive vision was lost in the debris, and though some buildings were rebuilt a majority were replaced. Today, Manila’s pre-war architecture is remembered with fondness and nostalgia.