Everyone wants to build houses, and five other things we learned from the first UK City Leaders’ Survey

Liverpool, which is a city. Image: Getty.

Something unusual happened in British politics over the last few weeks: someone bothered to ask city leaders what they think.

The inaugural UK City Leaders’ Survey, conducted by the Centre for Cities and those cheeky, publicity hungry tykes at Arup, invited views from the leadership of 63 cities, whether metro mayors, mayors or council leaders. Inspired by the Menino Survey of Mayors conducted by researchers at Boston University, the survey symbolises the growing influence of urban leaders in this ridiculously over-centralised country of ours. We at CityMetric are quite in favour of this, for the understandable reason that we, too, need to eat.

The results, the survey authors stress, are not statistically representative: the response rate was about a quarter, and the findings are indicative rather than scientific. But they do give some indication of what city leaders are worrying about at the moment.

So, what did we learn – and are there any pretty charts to illustrate it?

1) Building housing is everything

Housing and regeneration was identified, unprompted, as the biggest overall economic priority for the majority of leaders surveyed,” the report says.

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And within the housing sector, “supply was the overwhelming priority”.

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That’s nine out of ten respondents prioritising adding to their housing supply. Nearly half wanted to build more council homes.

So: the prime minister’s recent promise that she’d lift the borrowing cap to enable councils to build homes seems likely to be embraced with open arms.

2) Improving skills is everything else

Leaders highlighted inclusive growth as another of their broader priorities,” the report says. “When asked to provide more detail in this area, they tended to specify adult learning.

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Again, that’s quite the lead adult education has over other growth priorities, and the runner up is under 18 education. Both are running way ahead of other priorities including transport and public realm.

Adult education is an area that’s long been neglected by national government: governments of all parties have been far more concerned with schools and universities (which ministers and columnists vaguely understand) than further education or technical colleges (which they don’t). So it’s interesting to note that local leaders are worrying about this gap.

That said...

3) But care is, annoyingly, everything too

...it’s not clear they have the money to do anything about any of this.

Social care was identified by almost every leader as being the public service under the most pressure. This was also the policy area where most leaders would wish to see further funding allocated through the upcoming Spending Review.

This is unsurprising, of course, but here’s the kicker:

In turn, many were prepared to sacrifice funding in other areas, such as adult skills, to achieve this.

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It’s very easy to say that, were money available, you’d to increase spending on adult education. But the money isn’t available – and preventing adult social care services from falling over is a far more pressing problem.

You can see that from quite how universal concern about social care now is:

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That’s damn near unanimity. This is a problem.

4) Views on transport vary

Leaders tended to identify roads within their area and supporting a shift from cars to other modes of transport (such as public transport) as the two key areas.

In other words, everyone either wants to make things easier for cars or for things that aren’t cars.

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Glad we cleared that up.

5) City leaders are fretting about climate change

Of the leaders surveyed, 79 per cent agreed to either spending money or sacrificing revenues for the sake of mitigating climate change. Only one leader strongly disagreed with this.

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These findings are strikingly similar to those the Menino Survey found when it asked surveyed US mayors:

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I’m reminded of the late Ben Barber’s comment about why he believed mayors would save the world. National governments can mess around with ideas like sovereignty. Cities actually have to make sure stuff works.

6) On funding, they value certainty over flexibility

Would city leaders like to be able to move money around, based on local need? Or would they rather have longer budgets to give them certainty about how much they’ll have?

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That said, the difference is pretty narrow. I suspect a lot of city leaders would ideally have both.

The really interesting thing about work like this, of course, is how its findings change over time. So here’s to the 2019 UK City Leaders’ Survey. Nice to have something to get excited about each December isn’t it?


You can read the whole survey here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

 
 
 
 

Why aren’t working class people living in cities also “left behind”?

The metropolitan elite. Image: Getty.

If you have hammer, everything’s a nail. The hammer for much of Britain’s political class and commentators is Brexit, which is meant to explain everything from social mobility to the north-south divide to attitudes to immigration to public transport investment.

However, a huge amount is lost in this sort of analysis. One particular casualty is our understanding of working-class communities. This is particularly striking in the presentation of London as being a Remain stronghold inhabited by metropolitan elites.

In fact, the reality is that working class communities, especially in cities, have been just as “left behind” as those elsewhere in the UK. Even 72 people dying in the Grenfell Tower tragedy, a preventable fire which happened within sight of Parliament, hasn’t dislodged the dominant narrative of London as a leafy cosmopolitan elite bubble.

The lazy and reductive “London is cosmopolitan elite” narrative extends well beyond the far right. This shorthand gathers into one category people who have a second home in Provence, and outsourced gig economy workers who live in Hackney. By flattening such diversity into catch-all terms, we erase the existence of working class Londoners, ethnic minorities and migrants.

The facts are stark – London has some of the highest poverty, highest pollution, and largest working class community in all of the UK. Seven of the top 11 local authorities in terms of child poverty are in London, while the capital records the highest level of air pollution in the country.

Yet the statistics are airily dismissed because a majority London residents voted Remain in the EU referendum – and remainers, of course, are all elite, especially if they live in London. By such magic thinking, three in four black people in Britain become elite because they voted to remain in the EU, a point that should perhaps give pause to even the doughtiest proponent of the everything-is-Brexit theory.

Despite our national obsession about class, Britain already had an impoverished understanding and narrative on the topic even before Brexit. Why aren’t the ethnic minority and migrant people who live in tower blocks and experience disproportionate levels of child poverty (rising to 59 per cent for Bangladeshi children) viewed as working class? Why aren’t those living in cities, or who die in preventable fires also “left behind”?

One answer is it doesn’t suit a narrative that wants to make everything about Brexit, and that only addresses class when the context is Brexit. Another is that recognising that many ethnic minorities are also working-class is not helpful when your aim is to prosecute a different argument: that Britain needs “tougher” immigration policies.

At its most extreme, this argument ties into the longstanding narrative that only white people can be British or live in Britain. Of course, this is a narrative that divides working class communities and blames ethnic minorities and migrants for all of society’s ills.

It also has a direct policy effect. It is easier to justify cuts to public services if expenditure on those services is associated with “undeserving scroungers” who don’t really count as fellow citizens.

Recent research published by the Runnymede Trust and the Centre for Labour and Social Studies shows the wider effects of this narrative. The report’s title “We Are Ghosts” are the words of Henry, a working-class Londoner in his ‘60s living in Southwark and capture a wider sense of precariousness, neglect and lack of voice in the face of London’s ongoing gentrification.

Henry happens to be white – but his experience of injustice and prejudice is shared by people of colour interviewed for the same research. Where people engaged with public services, especially housing, policing and social care, they felt treated with indignity and indifference.

Decades of blaming the poor and migrant has led to a punitive culture within our public services which affects all working-class people, white or otherwise, as they see their voices and needs  being routinely ignored.

This is one reason why we need more locally devolved services: to strengthen working class, BME and migrant voices. Terms like “co-production” may sound thinktanky, but the aim is a democratic one: to ensure that those most affected by a service – such as housing services – or decision actually have a say in how that service is delivered.

Devolution isn’t just about putting more power in local rather than national government; it’s also about devolving power more directly to people, through community organisations and charities that are often better placed to represent and understand local needs and experiences.

The British working class has been multi-ethnic for centuries. Working class communities aren’t the same everywhere but they do experience the shared conditions of lack of resources, and lack of voice or power.

By always foregrounding Brexit when we talk about class, we not only miss these shared conditions among working class people across the UK, but deflect from the solutions that might actually address them.

If we’re serious about actually tackling race and class inequalities and prejudice, we need to put down the Brexit – or any other – hammer. Instead we need to change how we think and talk about race and class, invest more in the safety net, and redesign public services to provide those using them with greater dignity, voice and power.

Dr Omar Khan is director of the Runnymede Trust