What can the next Prime Minister do to help Britain’s cities?

Only one way to settle this... FIGHT! Image: Getty.

After two years of speculation about the future, the Conservative race to be the next Prime Minister is underway. Brexit will be the biggest task the next occupant of Number 10 faces, but closer to home there are many important policy issues – flagging national productivity, stark geographical inequality, the housing affordability crisis, underfunded adult education, creaking social care – that have fallen by the wayside since 2016. Brexit can no longer be the excuse for not addressing these.

Despite warm rhetoric about the need to rebalance the economy, this government has been cooler on the Northern Powerhouse than its predecessor, has stalled on introducing the Shared Prosperity Fund, and the pace of urban devolution has slowed at exactly the same time as Westminster politicians turned their attention away from domestic politics.

The importance of cities in the national political debate has been overlooked lately. Despite this we are an urban nation and cities matter. They account for just 9 per cent of UK land but are home to over half the population, 60 per cent of jobs and 62 per cent of GVA. While Conservative Party’s heartlands may be in the shires and just one contender this evening has an urban constituency, any of those hoping to take up the One Nation mantle needs to have a programme for government that improves the lives of people living and working in cities.

To do this, here is where they should start:

Address local government’s funding problems

In the last decade, cities have shouldered nearly three quarters of all local government funding cuts, despite being home to just 54 per cent of the population. When measured per head, since 2009 people living in cities saw a local government cut of £386 each, compared to just £172 elsewhere in Britain.

These unequal spending cuts have severely hampered the ability of many economically weaker cities to effectively deliver public services and grow their local economies. Added to this, increases in the demand for social care have meant that other services have had to face even deeper cuts.

Some of the leadership candidates have pledged to increase public spending. This needs to apply to the Fair Funding Review for local government. But in addition to more money there are several almost cost free measures that would help cities better deliver public services and grow their economies.

The next Prime Minister should give local authorities more powers to raise and spend money as they see fit, including letting them set multi-year budgets. They should also find a long-term solution to our social care crisis as the current system is unsustainable.

Build homes where they are needed

The housing crisis is one of the biggest domestic challenges that this country faces. There is now rightly a political consensus that we must build more housing and the government has set itself an ambitious target to build 300,000 new homes each year. I would be surprised if any leadership contender reneged on this goal.

But contrary to popular belief, we do not have a national housing supply crisis; supply in many parts of the country is more than able to keep up with demand. It’s in places where demand is high and increasing, many of which are in the Greater South East, where supply has been unable to respond to demand, and in fact has actively restricted the provision of new homes by giving undue weight to the concerns of existing homeowners.

To ensure that housing supply meets demand in popular areas, the next Prime Minister should reform the planning system and introduce a flexible zoning system based on the Japanese system. They should also stop inflating demand by subsidising homeownership through government initiatives like Help to Buy. These policies only raise prices, increasing the wealth of existing homeowners and further pushing up rental costs in already expensive cities.

This shift is likely to be a difficult pill to swallow for a party that holds property ownership as a central tenet of its philosophy. Yet homeownership as a share of private housing has declined in every city since 1981. The next Prime Minister should recognise that buying is now an unattainable goal for many people and do more to ensure there is a ready supply of secure rented homes in places where people want to live.

Improve transport connections within cities

Politicians find it hard to resist the allure of the hard hat and hi-vis jacket that accompany any big infrastructure project.

The transport policy focus in recent years has reflected this. HS2, Northern Powerhouse Rail, and a third runway at Heathrow all aim to improve connections between cities, either in Britain or internationally. But this focus risks misunderstanding the reality of everyday travel for most people.

Some 50 per cent of people live in one local authority but work in another. But more than 75 per cent live and work within the same city region. So people are travelling to work but the vast majority are not travelling long distances.

The reality that the vast majority of people live and work within their home city-region, rather than commuting between them, should inform the new Prime Minister’s transport policy. Investment in local transport to efficiently take commuters from the suburbs to the city centre should be priority.

On a practical level this means improving buses and suburban and light rail connections, encouraging cities to exercise their powers over their local transport networks and implementing TfL-style integration on the network.

Minimise trading barriers with the EU

Sadly I cannot finish a blog on priorities for the next Prime Minister without mentioning the B- word. Like the country as a whole, Britain’s cities are overwhelmingly dependent on the EU for trade. It is the largest export market for every British city.

Cities generate 77 per cent of Britain’s total services exports, and over half of these go to the European Union.  London, Edinburgh and Cardiff would be among the biggest losers should Britain leave the EU without a comprehensive deal which includes services.

The next Prime Minister should be mindful of the importance of the EU to the livelihoods of people living in Britain’s cities – a majority of the country’s population – and ensure that any future Brexit deal keeps trade with the continent in both goods and services as frictionless as possible.


This leadership contest is particularly interesting for those of us focused on urban policy; it may well be the first one in British history in which a politician goes from a city hall to Downing Street – potentially setting a precedent for aspiring future prime ministers.

Irrespective of who triumphs on the BBC tonight, and who goes on to win this contest, the next Prime Minister has a big in-tray waiting for them – and Brexit is just the start.

Andrew Carter is chief executive of the think tank Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article previously appeared.

 
 
 
 

How China's growing cities are adapting to pressures on housing and transport

Shenzhen, southern China's major financial centre. (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

In the last 40 years, the world’s most populous country has urbanised at a rate unprecedented in human history. China now has over 100 cities with populations greater than a million people, easily overshadowing the combined total of such cities in North America and Europe. 

That means urban policy in China is of increasing relevance to planning professionals around the world, and for many in Western nations there’s a lot to learn about the big-picture trends happening there, especially as local and national governments grapple with the coronavirus crisis. 

Can Chinese policymakers fully incorporate the hundreds of millions of rural-to-urban migrants living semi-legally in China’s cities into the economic boom that has transformed the lives of so many of their fellow citizens? The air quality in many major cities is still extremely poor, and lung cancer and other respiratory ailments are a persistent threat to health. Relatedly, now that car ownership is normalised among the urban middle classes, where are they going to put all these newly minted private automobiles?


Yan Song is the director of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s Program on Chinese Cities and a professor in the school’s celebrated urban planning department. She’s studied Chinese, American, and European cities for almost 20 years and I spoke with her about the issues above as well as changing attitudes towards cycling and displacement caused by urban renewal. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

American cities face very different challenges depending on which part of the country they are in. The Rust Belt struggles with vacancy, depopulation, and loss of tax base. In coastal cities housing affordability is a huge problem. How do the challenges of Chinese cities vary by region?

Generally speaking, the cities that are richer, usually on the eastern coastal line, are facing different challenges than cities in the western "hinterland." The cities that are at a more advantaged stage, where socio-economic development is pretty good, those cities are pretty much aware of the sustainability issue. They're keen on addressing things like green cities.

But the biggest challenge they face is housing affordability. Cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Hangzhou are trying to keep or attract young talent, but the housing prices are really, really high. The second challenge is equity. How do you provide equal, or at least fair, services to both the urban residents and the migrants who are living in the city, to alleviate some of the concerns around what the government is calling “social harmony?” 

Then the cities in the hinterland, typically they are resource economies. They are shrinking cities; they're trying to keep population. At the same time, they are addressing environmental issues, because they were overly relying on the natural endowments of their resources in the past decades, and now they're facing how to make the next stage of economic transition. That's the biggest divide in terms of regional challenges.

These urban centers rely on migrant workers for a lot of essential services, food preparation, driving, cleaning. But they live tenuous lives and don't have access to a lot of public services like education, health care, social insurance. Are Chinese policymakers trying to adopt a healthier relationship with this vast workforce?

The governments are making huge efforts in providing basic services to the migrants living in the city. They're relaxing restrictions for educational enrollment for migrants in the cities. In health care as well as the social security they are reforming the system to allow the free transfer of social benefits or credits across where they live and where they work [so they can be used in their rural hometown or the cities where they live and work]. 

In terms of health care, it's tough for the urban residents as well just because of the general shortage of the public health care system. So, it's tough for the urban residents and even tougher for the migrants. But the new policy agenda's strategists are aware of those disadvantages that urban migrants are facing in the cities and they're trying to fix the problem.

What about in terms of housing?

The rental market has been relaxed a lot in recent years to allow for more affordable accommodation of rural-to-urban migrants. Welfare housing, subsidised housing, unfortunately, skews to the urban residents. It's not opened up yet for the migrants. 

The rental market wasn't that active in previous years. But recently some policies allow for more flexible rental arrangements, allowing for shared rentals, making choices more available in the rental market. Before it was adopted, it’s prohibited to have, for example, three or more people sharing an apartment unit. Now that’s been relaxed in some cities, allowing for more migrant workers to share one unit to keep the rates down for them. You see a little bit more affordable rental units available in the market now.

I just read Thomas Campanella’s The Concrete Dragon, and he talks a lot about the scale of displacement in the 1990s and 2000s. Massive urban renewal projects where over 300,000 people in Beijing lost homes to Olympics-related development. Or Shanghai and Beijing each losing more homes in the ‘90s than were lost in all of America's urban renewal projects combined. It didn't sound like those displaced people had much of a voice in the political process. But that book was published in 2008.  How has policy changed since then, especially if people are more willing to engage in activism?

First of all, I want to make a justification for urban renewal in Chinese cities, which were developed mostly in the ‘50s and ‘60s. At the time, [in the 1990s] the conditions weren’t good and allowing for better standards of construction would inevitably have to displace some of the residents in older settlements. In my personal opinion, that wasn't something that could be done in an alternative way.  

Still, in the earlier days, the way of displacing people was really arbitrary, that's true. There wasn't much feedback gathered from the public or even from the people affected. In the name of the public interest, in the name of expanding a road, or expanding an urban center, that's just directed from the top down. 

Nowadays things are changing. The State Council realized they needed more inclusive urban development, they needed to have all the stakeholders heard in the process. In terms of how to process urban development, and sometimes displacement, the way that they are dealing with it now is more delicate and more inclusive.

Can you give me an example of what that looks like?

For example, [consider] hutong in Beijing, the alleyway houses, a typical lower-density [neighbourhood] that needs to be redeveloped. In the past, a notification was sent to the neighbours: “You need to be replaced. You need to be displaced, we need to develop.” That's it. 

Nowadays, they inform all different sorts of stakeholders. They could include artists' associations, nonprofits, grassroots organisations that represent the interests of the local residents. Then they [the citizens groups] could say what they really want to preserve. “This is what we think is really valuable” and that will be part of the inputs in the planning process. Some of the key elements could possibly be preserved. They  [the authorities] also talk about the social network, because they realized that when they displace people, the biggest loss is the social network that they have built in the original location. So, it's not only conserving some of the physical environment, but also trying to conserve some of the social network that people have.  


(STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Speaking of urban renewal, there was a big emphasis in the ‘90s and 2000s on highways. A lot of auto-oriented development in Beijing, following more of a Los Angeles than New York model. There's this quote I saw from Hong Kong architect Tao Ho, during the 1990s development of Pudong in Shanghai, warning against replicating “the tall buildings and car-oriented mentality of the West." 

In the ’90s or the first decade of the 21st century, most cities in China were still making mistakes. When I was a student, in the late '90s, I was translating for the American Planning Association. At the time, Beijing was still taking out the bike lanes and the planners from APA were telling them: “No, don't do that. Don't make that mistake." 

In the past decade, that's not occurring anymore. It has been happening [adding bike lanes] for a couple of years in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen. More attention has been given to improving the service quality of green transportation, upgrades to buses, the bike lane system, and so on. 

As China got richer, bikes became a symbol of poverty and, like you said, urban planners began removing bike lanes. Cities like Nanjing and Shanghai considered banning bikes from the central city entirely. 

For a long time, bike lanes were abandoned and the road surface was more devoted to the car. But in the past few years this has been changing, more road space has been given to bus rapid transit and to bike lanes. The attitude giving precedence to the private car is giving way.

Another thing they are trying to do is behavioural change, teaching younger generations that biking is cool, creating a new set of values that's more sustainable. In some major cities, you see educational campaigns, posters around the cities, [saying] bicycling is really cool. 

A recent paper you worked on looked at air quality in Chinese cities and found they are still struggling. The paper cited a study suggesting “that Chinese cities face the worst air quality across different cities around [the] world based on an extensive research of 175 countries.” Your paper recommends transit-oriented development and significant green outdoor space. Is that something you see policymakers adopting?

Yes, definitely, although with regional variations still. The eastern and southern cities are seeing more policies toward transit-oriented development. They are adapting smart technology too. For example, Hangzhou, which is the model of smart cities, the tech tycoon Alibaba installed sensors on every single traffic signal there. Then they were using technology to change the light, so when they detect a higher volume of traffic, they streamline the green lights and the red light wouldn't stop the cars, so there are less carbon emissions at the intersections. They showed that there was a reduction of up to 15% emissions. 

What about in terms of parking policy? How are policymakers trying to deal with the influx of cars in these cities? Are there parking minimums like in many American cities?

I was visiting Hangzhou in December, their “Smart City” headquarters there. They were trying to use technology to let people know where there's parking, so they don't have to drive around, which increases carbon emissions. In other cities, like Shenzhen, they were increasing the parking fee in the downtown by 50 yuan, or seven US dollars an hour. That's pretty high in the context of Chinese cities. It was 10 or 20 yuan before. So, just increasing the parking cost in the downtown area so that you discourage people from driving.

What are you working on now?

My new research is still on air quality. We had a really cool collaboration with a counterpart of Google Street Map. In China, that’s Baidu StreetMap. We asked the company to install another sensor on their cars when they take pictures. We added a sensor for air quality. So, we will know at a street level what are the current emissions by geolocation, by time. That will be really cool when we have all that data. 

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer for CityMetric.