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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Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 


What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.