Five challenges the sustainable development goals present to city leaders

The UN building in New York. Image: Getty.

Back in September, the UN ratified the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS): 17 goals that are intended to provide a blueprint for the next 15 years of the world's development.

But while global leaders were signing the SDGs, less noticed was that more than 20 city and local leaders endorsed them, and committed to implementing them in their own cities. This is interesting and encouraging as many of the goals fall within city leaders’ responsibilities.

Here are some of the challenges that cities in the developing world – both those that endorsed the SDGs, and others that may decide to adopt them – will face.

1.  Lack of good data leaves us in the dark

It may not be the flashiest line of work, but gathering detailed data is the most useful tool for city policymakers to assess their residents’ needs – and target their policies accordingly.

However, many cities in developing countries lack essential up-to-date information on subjects like the location and characteristics of their slums, the state of their housing stock or transport network. It was only recently that a project like Digital Matatus made Nairobi’s semiformal transit system visible.

Without this data, how can officials say whether they are making progress on Goal 11 – that is, to make cities "inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable"? How can they know if basic services are reaching their poorest populations, in line with the SDGs’ "Leave no-one behind" agenda? How are citizens supposed to hold their local governments to account?

There is growing awareness of the need for good disaggregated data, with a number of initiatives – from a Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data to citizen-generated data and data collected by slum dwellers themselves – looking to fill the gaps.

2.  Leaders should pick their targets

With 17 goals and 169 targets, city officials need to prioritise. Trying to do too much may result in achieving too little.

While this is common sense from a practical perspective, it also leads to a real risk of short-term political calculations giving priority to targets that are easier to achieve, with leaders treating the SDGs as a sort of "à la carte menu".

There is only one way to avoid this: civil society groups must keep a close eye on SDG progress and hold city governments to account.

3. Ambition only works if you can finance it

The SDGs have raised the international community’s ambition. Estimates of their cost reach into the trillions of dollars.

While city governments’ responsibilities vary by nation, they are often the ones feeling the pressure of having to deliver basic services – from water and sanitation, to affordable housing – while urban populations rise. But the question of how local governments can access new sources of finance, both from domestic and external sources (particularly climate finance), has not yet received the attention it deserves.

4. Local governments face complex challenges – but often lack the capacity to cope

While reforms to devolve power to local governments are under way in many countries, funding and support to improve local government capacity have often trailed behind.

Many local governments, particularly in secondary cities, lack the technical capacity to plan and manage service delivery on the scale needed to manage increasing populations – or to negotiate complex contracts with private suppliers on an equal footing.

Unless urban planning capacities are strengthened, cities will struggle to meet the challenges posed by rapid urbanisation.

5. Leadership from cities often have a lasting impact beyond them

Change happens when there is political will. If mayors commit to the SDGs because they can see the benefits (including political ones) – or because civil society groups put pressure on them – then we might see results.

There are plenty of examples of ambitious or innovative mayoral initiatives setting a precedent for national policy. Bolsa Familia, the celebrated cash transfer programme in Brazil, actually had its origins in Bolsa Escola, an initiative from the government of Brasilia. That cash transfer programme was aimed at reducing poverty and inequality, but it was also a key element of the opposition’s political strategy.

How countries manage urbanisation over the next 15 years will be critical to reducing poverty and environmental sustainability. Ultimately, it will help define governments’ ability to achieve the SDGs. 

One way to maximise the role of city governments would be to build on the commitments already made by some city leaders and establish a group of cities that frequently monitor and exchange lessons on policies to achieve the SDGs – in essence, a "Cities for SDGs" network.

Throughout their design, the SDGs have received praise and criticism in equal measure. With the goals now agreed, efforts must focus on implementation – and for that, we need city leaders on board.

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“Without rent control we can’t hope to solve London’s housing crisis”

You BET! Oh GOD. Image: Getty.

Today, the mayor of London called for new powers to introduce rent controls in London. With ever increasing rents swallowing more of people’s income and driving poverty, the free market has clearly failed to provide affordable homes for Londoners. 

Created in 1988, the modern private rented sector was designed primarily to attract investment, with the balance of power weighted almost entirely in landlords’ favour. As social housing stock has been eroded, with more than 1 million fewer social rented homes today compared to 1980, and as the financialisation of homes has driven up house prices, more and more people are getting trapped private renting. In 1990 just 11 per cent of households in London rented privately, but by 2017 this figure had grown to 27 per cent; it is also home to an increasing number of families and older people. 

When I first moved to London, I spent years spending well over 50 per cent of my income on rent. Even without any dependent to support, after essentials my disposable income was vanishingly small. London has the highest rent to income ratio of any region, and the highest proportion of households spending over a third of their income on rent. High rents limit people’s lives, and in London this has become a major driver of poverty and inequality. In the three years leading up to 2015-16, 960,000 private renters were living in poverty, and over half of children growing up in private rented housing are living in poverty.

So carefully designed rent controls therefore have the potential to reduce poverty and may also contribute over time to the reduction of the housing benefit bill (although any housing bill reductions have to come after an expansion of the system, which has been subject to brutal cuts over the last decade). Rent controls may also support London’s employers, two-thirds of whom are struggling to recruit entry-level staff because of the shortage of affordable homes. 

It’s obvious that London rents are far too high, and now an increasing number of voices are calling for rent controls as part of the solution: 68 per cent of Londoners are in favour, and a growing renters’ movement has emerged. Groups like the London Renters Union have already secured a massive victory in the outlawing of section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions. But without rent control, landlords can still unfairly get rid of tenants by jacking up rents.


At the New Economics Foundation we’ve been working with the Mayor of London and the Greater London Authority to research what kind of rent control would work in London. Rent controls are often polarising in the UK but are commonplace elsewhere. New York controls rents on many properties, and Berlin has just introduced a five year “rental lid”, with the mayor citing a desire to not become “like London” as a motivation for the policy. 

A rent control that helps to solve London’s housing crisis would need to meet several criteria. Since rents have risen three times faster than average wages since 2010, rent control should initially brings rents down. Our research found that a 1 per cent reduction in rents for four years could lead to 20 per cent cheaper rents compared to where they would be otherwise. London also needs a rent control both within and between tenancies because otherwise landlords can just reset rents when tenancies end.

Without rent control we can’t hope to solve London’s housing crisis – but it’s not without risk. Decreases in landlord profits could encourage current landlords to exit the sector and discourage new ones from entering it. And a sharp reduction in the supply of privately rented homes would severely reduce housing options for Londoners, whilst reducing incentives for landlords to maintain and improve their properties.

Rent controls should be introduced in a stepped way to minimise risks for tenants. And we need more information on landlords, rents, and their business models in order to design a rent control which avoids unintended consequences.

Rent controls are also not a silver bullet. They need to be part of a package of solutions to London’s housing affordability crisis, including a large scale increase in social housebuilding and an improvement in housing benefit. However, private renting will be part of London’s housing system for some time to come, and the scale of the affordability crisis in London means that the question of rent controls is no longer “if”, but increasingly “how”. 

Joe Beswick is head of housing & land at the New Economics Foundation.