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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The Adam Smith Institute thinks size doesn’t matter when housing young professionals. It’s wrong

A microhome, of sorts. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The Adam Smith Institute has just published ‘Size Doesn’t Matter’, a report by Vera Kichanova, which argues that eliminating minimum space requirements for flats would help to solve the London housing crisis. The creation of so-called ‘micro-housing’ would allow those young professionals who value location over size to live inside the most economically-active areas of London, the report argues argues.

But the report’s premises are often mistaken – and its solutions sketchy and questionable.

To its credit, it does currently diagnose the roots of the housing crisis: London’s growing population isn’t matched by a growing housing stock. Kichanova is self-evidently right in stating that “those who manage to find accomodation [sic] in the UK capital have to compromise significantly on their living standards”, and that planning restrictions and the misnamed Green Belt are contributing to this growing crisis.

But the problems start on page 6, when Kichanova states that “the land in central, more densely populated areas, is also used in a highly inefficient way”, justifying this reasoning through an assertion that half of Londoners live in buildings up to two floors high. In doing so, she incorrectly equates high-rise with density: Kichanova, formerly a Libertarian Party councillor in Moscow, an extraordinarily spread-out city with more than its fair share of tall buildings, should know better.

Worse, the original source for this assertion refers to London as a whole: that means it includes the low-rise areas of outer London, rather than just the very centrally located Central Activities Zone (CAZ) – the City, West End, South Bank and so forth – with which the ASI report is concerned. A leisurely bike ride from Knightsbridge to Aldgate would reveal that single or two-storey buildings are almost completely absent from those parts of London that make up the CAZ.

Kichanova also argues that a young professional would find it difficult to rent a flat in the CAZ. This is correct, as the CAZ covers extremely upmarket areas like Mayfair, Westminster, and Kensington Gardens (!), as well as slightly more affordable parts of north London, such as King’s Cross.

Yet the report leaps from that quite uncontroversial assertion to stating that living outside the CAZ means a commute of an hour or more per day. This is a strawman: it’s perfectly possible to keep your commuting time down, even living far outside of the CAZ. I live in Archway and cycle to Bloomsbury in about twenty minutes; if you lived within walking distance of Seven Sisters and worked in Victoria, you would spend much less than an hour a day on the Tube.

Kichanova supports her case by apparently misstating research by some Swiss economists, according to whom a person with an hour commute to work has to earn 40 per cent more money to be as satisfied as someone who walks. An hour commute to work means two hours travelling per day – by any measure a different ballpark, which as a London commuter would mean living virtually out in the Home Counties.

Having misidentified the issue, the ASI’s solution is to allow the construction of so-called micro-homes, which in the UK refers to homes with less than the nationally-mandated minimum 37m2 of floor space. Anticipating criticism, the report disparages “emotionally charged epithets like ‘rabbit holes’ and ‘shoeboxes,” in the very same paragraph which describes commuting as “spending two hours a day in a packed train with barely enough air to breath”.


The report suggests browsing Dezeen’s examples of designer micro-flats in order to rid oneself of the preconception that tiny flats need mean horrible rabbit hutches. It uses weasel words – “it largely depends on design whether a flat looks like a decent place to live in” – to escape the obvious criticism that, nice-looking or not, tiny flats are few people’s ideal of decent living. An essay in the New York Times by a dweller of a micro-flat describes the tyranny of the humble laundry basket, which looms much larger than life because of its relative enormity in the author’s tiny flat; the smell of onion which lingers for weeks after cooking a single dish.

Labour London Assembly member Tom Copley has described being “appalled” after viewing a much-publicised scheme by development company U+I. In Hong Kong, already accustomed to some of the smallest micro-flats in the world, living spaces are shrinking further, leading Alice Wu to plead in an opinion column last year for the Hong Kong government to “regulate flat sizes for the sake of our mental health”.

Amusingly, the Dezeen page the ASI report urges a look at includes several examples directly contradicting its own argument. One micro-flat is 35 m2, barely under minimum space standards as they stand; another is named the Shoe Box, a title described by Dezeen as “apt”. So much for eliminating emotionally-charged epithets.

The ASI report readily admits that micro-housing is suitable only for a narrow segment of Londoners; it states that micro-housing will not become a mass phenomenon. But quite how the knock-on effects of a change in planning rules allowing for smaller flats will be managed, the report never makes clear. It is perfectly foreseeable that, rather than a niche phenomenon confined to Zone 1, these glorified student halls would become common for early-career professionals, as they have in Hong Kong, even well outside the CAZ.

There will always be a market for cheap flats, and many underpaid professionals would leap at the chance to save money on their rent, even if that doesn’t actually mean living more centrally. The reasoning implicit to the report is that young professionals would be willing to pay similar rents to normal-sized flats in Zones 2-4 in order to live in a smaller flat in Zone 1.

But the danger is that developers’ response is simply to build smaller flats outside Zone 1, with rent levels which are lower per flat but higher per square metre than under existing rules. As any private renter in London knows, it’s hardly uncommon for landlords to bend the rules in order to squeeze as much profit as possible out of their renters.

The ASI should be commended for correctly diagnosing the issues facing young professionals in London, even if the solution of living in a room not much bigger than a bed is no solution. A race to the bottom is not a desirable outcome. But to its credit, I did learn something from the report: I never knew the S in ASI stood for “Slum”.