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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Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.