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.