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Power to the Cities?

10 April 2014

RB-editWith an announcement yesterday on proposing more powers cities and counties, Ed Miliband has hitched the Labour cart to the decentralization horse. He follows Michael Heseltine down this road.

The policy community, or at least that part of it which is concerned with transport, jobs, skills and homes, is abuzz with comment. I must confess an excited tweet or two. But as the London Evening Standard  says “devolution of powers is a favourite of think tanks but means little to most voters” (leader 08.04.14). That pulled me up short. Is this really a parish pump chat in the Westminster village?

A feature of politics is that people just want it to work and only notice when it doesn’t. As a planner I am often surprised that in this supposedly cut-and-thrust world of everyone’s got their own business, people in general nevertheless just expect planners to make their cities work. They are rather bemused when I reply that since 1979 we have been told “hands off!” in the name of the “market”. “But surely you planners will make sure that homes are provided in sufficient quantity and in the right places so people can get to work, won’t you?”  My knee-jerk reply (“we’re not allowed to, on the whole”) is regarded with incomprehension.


Decentralization

Although decentralization is a geeky topic issues around homes, jobs and transport aren’t. And there is a theory that decentralization just might work better than Whitehall does. The idea goes something like this:

  • First up, it is arguably easier to get all the different silos in government and related parts of the economy to work together if they are smaller. National organisations are so busy being, well, national, that the problems of, say, Leeds have to take their turn. So if I want to call a meeting of all the people who are key to planning Leeds City Centre I will have a job on.
  • Second, and this a special planning issue, at present we actually have quite a bit of decentralization, but only in some policy areas. Matters such as  the environment, transport and schools are highly centralized, but decisions on granting planning permission for housing are taken by some fairly small local authorities (many have fewer than 100,000 people). This would be fine except housing in reality does not obey the nice silo boundaries set up by Whitehall. Your house is closely connected with your journey to work; if you move into a new house you may want your children to go to school; you certainly don’t want it to be flooded once you’re living there. At present planners who wish to see more homes in the right places have to contend with the local outposts of many different Cabinet Ministers’ departments, just to get a housing estate built.

And that is just the technical side. We hear a lot about nimbies these days. Many concerns of people objecting to new development are based on bitter past experience, and one of the most serious is the failure of physical and social infrastructure to keep pace with development. In some areas such as Surrey this has been going on for decades, and so has had plenty of opportunity to so seeds of dissent. It is maybe just possible that if the same bodies which granted permission for homes also made key decisions on infrastructure, a way forward could be found to mollify peoples’ concerns.

So maybe Ed Miliband and Michael Heseltine are onto something after all. We in the RTPI are currently researching this issue and will be publishing findings in our Planning Horizons series in  the autumn. Hopefully not only geeks will read them!

Richard Blyth is Head of Policy Practice and Research at the RTPI. He is overseeing the current round of policy papers