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.

 
 
 
 

In a world of autonomous vehicles, we’ll still need walking and cycling routes

A Surrey cycle path, 1936 style. Image: Getty.

The CEO of Sustrans on the limits of technology.

We are on the cusp of dramatic changes in the way we own, use and power our means of transportation. The mobility revolution is shifting from an “if” to a “where” and when”.

There are two different futures currently being imagined. First up, a heaven, of easy mobility as portrayed by autonomous vehicle (AV) manufacturers, with shared-use AV freeing up road space for public spaces and accidents reduced to near zero. Or alternatively, a hellish, dystopian pod-world, with single-occupancy pod-armadas leading to an irresistible demand for more roads, and with people cloistered away in walkways and tunnels; Bladerunner but with added trees.

Most likely, the reality will turn out to be somewhere in between, as cities and regions across the globe shape and accommodate innovation and experimentation.

But in the understandable rush for the benefits of automation we need to start with the end in mind. What type of places do we want to live in? How do we want to relate to each other? How do we want to be?

At Sustrans we want to see a society where the way we travel creates healthier places and happier lives for everyone – because without concerted effort we are going to end up with an unequal and inequitable distribution of the benefits and disbenefits from the mobility revolution. Fundamentally this is about space and power. The age-old question of who has access to space and how. And power tends to win.  

The wealthy will use AV’s and EV’s first – they already are – and the young and upwardly mobile will embrace micro mobility. But low-income, older and disabled residents could be left in the margins with old tech, no tech and no space.

We were founded in 1977, when off the back of the oil crises a group of engineers and radical thinkers pioneered the transformation of old railway lines into paths that everyone could walk and cycle on: old tech put to the service of even older tech. Back then the petrol-powered car was the future. Over 40 years on, the 16,575-mile National Cycle Network spans the length and breadth of the UK, crossing and connecting towns, cities and countryside, with over half of the population living within two miles of its routes.


Last year, more than 800 million trips were made on the Network. That’s almost half as many journeys made on the rail network, or 12 journeys for every person in the UK. These trips benefited the UK economy by £88m through reduced road congestion and contributed £2.5bn to local economies through leisure and tourism. Walking and cycling on the Network also prevented 630 early deaths and averted nearly 8,000 serious long-term health conditions.

These benefits would be much higher if the paths on the entire Network were separated from motor traffic; currently only one third of them are. Completing an entirely traffic-free walking and cycling network won’t be simple. So why do it?

In a world of micro-mobility, AVs and other disruptive technology, is the National Cycle Network still relevant?

Yes, absolutely. This is about more than just connecting places and enabling people to travel without a car. These paths connect people to one other. In times when almost a fifth of the UK population say they are always or often lonely, these paths are a vital asset. They provide free space for everyone to move around, to be, and spend time together. It’s the kind of space that keeps our country more human and humane.

No matter how clever the technological interface between autonomous vehicles and people, we will need dedicated space for the public to move under their own power, to walk and cycle, away from vehicles. As a civil society we will need to fight for this.

And for this reason, the creation of vehicle-free space – a network of walking and cycling paths for everyone is as important, and as radical, as it was 40-years ago.

Xavier Brice is CEO of the walking and cycling charity Sustrans. He spoke at the MOVE 2019 conference last week.