England’s metro mayors are leading when Westminster can’t

Steve Rotheram and Andy Burnham. Image: Getty.

As national politicians and policymakers devote the lion’s share of their attention and resources to Brexit, it is left to Britain’s city leaders to address many of the economic and social challenges that people in their cities face.

Only two years on from the election of the first metro mayors they are making substantial policy changes in the city-regions on issues ranging from transport to environment to housing. This has long-term consequences for governance in Britain.

For instance, in March, Steve Rotheram launched a UCAS-style apprenticeships portal for the Liverpool City Region named Be More.

Creating a single place to find training opportunities within a local labour market is a good idea and will make it much easier for both workers and employers interested in training to find each other. This is particularly important in Liverpool, which has the fourth highest share of workers with no qualifications of any city in the UK.

Share of working age population with few or no qualifications. Image: Centre for Cities.

The leadership, funding, and electoral mandate of the Liverpool Metro Mayor have given the city some power to tackle its policy priorities. Liverpool City Region no longer has to patiently wait for Whitehall and Westminster to catch a breather from Brexit to spare a bit of time and money for the Mersey. The metro mayor is in charge of improving the local economy and is accountable to local voters on that basis.

This is a much more substantial shift in British politics than most commentators in London appear to realise.

As the mayor of London has changed electoral politics and policy in both Greater London and the wider UK, the metro mayors are now changing how power works in England. Whether it’s leading on skills policy in Liverpool City Region, or green belt reform in Greater Manchester, or the municipalisation of Durham Tees Valley Airport, metro mayors are setting the policy agenda in their city-regions.

The process of devolution is still not complete. The Adult Education budget will in September be devolved to the metro mayors elected in 2017 and the Mayor of London, and is a chance to show how the mayors understand their areas’ local priorities and are ready to take on hard problems. If they can pass this test, it will only bolster their arguments for more autonomy.

The metro mayors have already banded together to call for more powers over taxation. They will need to show they’re prepared for them, but it’s only right that politicians with such large elected mandates should have more control over and freedom to use local revenues.

The constitutional implications of this are exactly what devolution to cities was designed to achieve. Power in England no longer just flows out from London but is met and contested by competing elected mandates in our cities.

How these new metro mayors get new problem-solving powers from national government and convince their voters they are solving those local problems will be the key topics of the metro mayor elections next year – and will continue to be for all their elections after that.

Anthony Breach is an economic analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.


Segregated playgrounds are just the start: inequality is built into the fabric of our cities

Yet more luxury flats. Image: Getty.

Developers in London have come under scrutiny for segregating people who live in social or affordable housing from residents who pay market rates. Prominent cases have included children from social housing being blocked from using a playground in a new development, and “poor doors” providing separate entrances for social housing residents.

Of course, segregation has long been a reality in cities around the world. For example, gated communities have been documented in the US cities since the 1970s, while racially segregated urban areas existed in South Africa under apartheid. Research by myself and other academics has shown that urban spaces which divide and exclude society’s poorer or more vulnerable citizens are still expanding rapidly, even replacing public provision of facilities and services – such as parks and playgrounds – in cities around the world.

Gated developments in Gurgaon, India, have created a patchwork of privatised services; elite developments in Hanoi, Vietnam, offer rich residents cleaner air; and luxury condos in Toronto, Canada, displace local residents in favour of foreign investors. An extreme example is the Eko Atlantic project in Nigeria – a private city being built in Lagos, where the majority of other residents face extreme levels of deprivation and poverty.

A commodity, or a right?

Although these developments come with their own unique context and characteristics, they all have one thing in common: they effectively segregate city dwellers. By providing the sorts of facilities and services which would normally be run by public authorities, but reserving them exclusively for certain residents, such developments threaten the wider public’s access to green spaces, decent housing, playgrounds and even safe sewage systems.

Access to basic services, which was once considered to be the right of all citizens, is at risk of becoming a commodity. Privatisation may start with minor services such as the landscaping or upkeep of neighbourhoods: for example, the maintenance of some new-build estates in the UK are being left to developers in return for a service charge. This might seem insignificant, but it introduces an unregulated cost for the residents.

Privatising the provision of municipal services may be seen by some as a way for wealthier residents to enjoy a better standard of living – as in Hanoi. But in the worst cases, it puts in a paywall in front of fundamental services such as sewage disposal – as happened in Gurgaon. In other words, privatisation may start with insignificant services and expand to more fundamental ones, creating greater segregation and inequality in cities.

A divided city

My own research on branded housing projects in Turkey has highlighted the drastic consequences of the gradual expansion of exclusive services and facilities through segregated developments. These private housing developments – known for their extensive use of branding – have sprung up in Istanbul and other Turkish cities over the past two decades, since the government began to favour a more neoliberal approach.

By 2014, there were more than 800 branded housing projects in Istanbul alone. They vary in scale from a single high-rise building to developments aiming to accommodate more than 20,000 residents. Today, this development type can be seen in every city in Turkey, from small towns to the largest metropolitan areas.

The branded housing projects are segregated by design, often featuring a single tower or an enclosing cluster of buildings, as well as walls and fences. They provide an extensive array of services and facilities exclusively for their residents, including parks, playgrounds, sports pitches, health clinics and landscaping.

Making the same services and facilities available within each project effectively prevents interaction between residents and people living outside of their development. What’s more, these projects often exist in neighbourhoods which lack publicly accessible open spaces such as parks and playgrounds.

This is a city-wide problem in Istanbul since the amount of publicly accessible green spaces in Istanbul is as low as 2.2 per cent of the total urban area. In London, 33 per cent of the city’s area is made up of parks and gardens open to the public – which shows the severity of the problem in Istanbul.

These branded housing projects do not feature any affordable units or social housing, so there are no opportunities for less privileged city-dwellers to enjoy vital facilities such as green spaces. This has knock-on effects on excluded residents’ mental and physical health, contributing to greater inequality in these respects, too.

Emerging alternatives

To prevent increasing inequality, exclusion and segregation in cities, fundamental urban services must be maintained or improved and kept in public ownership and made accessible for every city-dweller. There are emerging alternatives that show ways to do this and challenge privatisation policies.

For example, in some cities, local governments have “remunicipalised” key services, bringing them back into public ownership. A report by Dutch think-tank the Transnational Institute identified 235 cases where water supplies were remunicipalised across 37 countries between 2000 and 2015. The water remunicipalisation tracker keeps track of successful examples of remunicipalisation cases around the world, as well as ongoing campaigns.

It is vitally important to keep urban services public and reverse subtle forms or privatisation by focusing on delivering a decent standard of living for all residents. Local authorities need to be committed to this goal – but they must also receive adequate funds from local taxes and central governments. Only then, will quality services be available to all people living in cities.

The Conversation

Bilge Serin, Research Associate, University of Glasgow.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.