Monday, 2 April 2012

City Slang

Cities have personalities.  Cities have a narrative.   Cities have a direction.  And for the very best cities they have a political and business leadership that matches that - say Manchester and people of my musical generation immediately think of The Hacienda, Stone Roses, Inspiral Carpets and Factory records.  And say Manchester Labour and political activists on the left immediately know that you're referring to a distinctive, working-class, iconoclastic brand of metropolitan leadership.  

In all major cities you'll find historical and contemporary drivers for political and civic decision making.  In Nottingham the ruling Labour Group is conscious of and proud that we're from a tradition that does things a little differently - with the historical context of Robin Hood, Chartism and the 1832 Reform Act riots you struggle to be anything else.    

What I find a strange and dislocating experience comparing the UK with America is our incoherent and faltering approach to City governance.  Starting right from basics, the actual administrative boundaries of Nottingham fail what I call the 'sunlounger test' - if you met people who live in West Bridgford, Beeston, Arnold, even Ilkeston and Long Eaton on holiday and asked them where they lived they would say, "Nottingham" when in reality they live in the boroughs of Rushcliffe, Broxtowe, Gedling and actually in Derbyshire.  All this has a technical name - underbounding - the concept of a geopolitical boundary being significantly smaller than the conurbation that it sits in.  The majority of England's "Core Cities" are underbounded - with the notable exceptions of Leeds and Sheffield (a third of which falls into the Peak District National Park).  Why does this matter except to political nerds like me?  Well, it matters for two reasons - it matters for reasons of scale/efficiency and it matters for reasons for practical politics.  

  1. Having the political boundaries the same size as the geographic ones gives a scale that enables services to be delivered efficiently and as cheaply as possible.  For example, there is effectively an exclave of Broxtowe Borough in Nottinghamshire County only accessible by going through Nottingham City - halfway along Latimer Drive in Wollaton to the west of the city the boundary is arbitrarily drawn - eg here at around number 20 it's the city but half a dozen houses further along here around number 32 you're out in County.  I've got this image of a totally inefficient journey by Broxtowe refuse trucks driving alongside City trucks to collect the bins on the same day...   Only a trivial example but it underlines the wider point - the residents of number 32 will have exactly the same desires, challenges and ambitions for where they live as their near neighbours at number 20 but will be served in a totally different way by their respective leaders.  More broadly, having the right boundaries allows a city's leaders to punch at the appropriate weight.  Manchester (the City of Manchester is a tiny authority in respect to the total conurbation) have got around this with the idea of a City Region but other cities aren't as lucky.  
  2. Secondly, the right boundaries enable interested stakeholders to engage in dialogue and once an agreed position has been reached strive towards the goals rather than constantly defining yourself with or against near neighbours.  The experience of the BBC's relocation to Salford (or is it Manchester?) and Salford's move to a Directly Elected Mayor out of line with the rest of the wider city are good examples.  
(Lots of Manchester examples in this post - but then it is one of my favourite cities)

But underbounding is the least of the issues facing how our cities are governed - the last decade and a half have seen a bewildering array of experiments, re-organisations and failed proposals regarding local and regional government.  And I think that the 13 years that Labour were in power marked a real failure of delivery for cities - ironic given this is the predominant source of the party's power base.  From the bizarre inside-baseball shift from 'Leader and Cabinet' to 'Strong Leader and Cabinet' to the failure of political leadership over Regional Assemblies to the odd idea of 'Super Unitaries' and the recent ill-defined proposal for new powers for core cities (City Deal), local and city government hasn't been well served over the last few years.  And now we've got the distraction of a referendum on the idea of a Directly Elected Mayor in Nottingham and other Core Cities in May.  An issue that no-one has ever spontaneously mentioned to me on the doorstep is now consuming time and money that would be better spent on creating jobs, cleaning the streets and keeping people safe.  

Fundamentally, citizens and employers in cities want clarity of political leadership and stability of governing structure.  Nottingham has been lucky to have the former for over a decade but, as with other cities, has been ill-served in terms of the latter.  I will be interested in seeing how similar sized American cities have dealt with some of these issues.  There certainly seems to be a stronger trend for annexation of neighbouring areas into the authority boundaries that have become part of the conurbation over time.  And the clear federalised government structure means that powers are typically better defined and demarcated.  The higher levels of Mayoral governance will be interesting to observe - it obviously offers a high level of clarity and profile for a city but the degree to which positions that would be expected to be unelected in the UK (eg judges to even State benches) I'm sure poses challenges as well as opportunities. 

1 comment:

  1. Totally agree - I worked for Rushcliffe for years and thought it was madness to have such small organisations all running the same services on a shoestring. We must redraw the city boundaries to what they actually are ASAP if we are ever to seriously bat our weight.....