Archive for September, 2009


September 18, 2009

the bay area from space

I’m off to California until the new year. I’ll be based in the Institute of Urban and Regional Development at UC Berkeley, where I’m now one of the (many) Visiting Scholars.

I’ll be working on the second part of my PhD research, doing a couple of projects on cultural diversity, innovation and ideas generation. Berkeley has some of the best researchers in the world [al-s link] in this field. And I hope to be taking a look at high-tech firms in Silicon Valley and the wider Bay Area.

Bloggage will continue as normal. I’ll see some of you in November at the NARSC Conference. If you’re passing through, please look me up and say hello

Sleep Walk, Sleep Talk

September 8, 2009

images by suki chan,

My friend Suki has made a new film / installation about life in the city, using footage from around London and interviews with various urbanites (including me – fame at last!). Sleep Walk, Sleep Talk is part of Free To Air, a four-year programme of commissions and events loosely organised around the idea of urban freedom.

The installation is showing at 198 Contemporary Arts in SW9 from 14 September to 19 October. There’s a private view on Monday night – email me if you’d like an invite.

The gallery says:

A London of fast-blinking lights and speeding commuters, where cars and trains leave luminous comet-trails marking their passage through the night, and where individuals reflect on freedom in the urban metropolis, or seek escape from the repetitive habits and conditions it enforces.

Inspired by ideas of freedom of expression in contemporary society, Suki Chan’s new video installation is an impressionistic study of London’s diverse population … Chan’s work weaves together a series of evocative video portraits highlighting people’s different responses to the hubbub of London life. Groups of skaters, unimpeded by traffic, move freely through the twilight city, tracing an intuitive map of the metropolis. Nigerian security guards gatekeeping a deserted high-rise office block compare the ‘freedom’ of London with their rhythms and aspirations of their former life. While city commuters embody the regularity of everyday urban existence.

I’d recommend going even if I wasn’t in it – Suki’s film work is always very beautiful to look at. In the meantime, or if you’re not in town, you can watch some excerpts here.


September 2, 2009


As someone in Spinal Tap said, there’s a thin line between clever and stupid.  I’m still trying to work out which category Barnet Council’s ‘EasyCouncil’ proposals belong to.

Barnet has unveiled some pretty radical ideas on local services. The Guardian-dubbed ‘Tory test-pilot of no-frills government’ wants to shrink the council, outsourcing most tasks via a for-profit joint venture company. In future people might have to buy in ‘premium’ services, or make do with cheaper basics.

As Tony Travers suggests, we might see a lot more of this if David Cameron wins the next General Election. So will it work?

Future Shape is a work in progress. The Council’s latest thinking is here; the original plans are here. Some immediate challenges emerge from these.

First, the ‘budget airline approach’ doesn’t really transfer to local government. The typical local authority provides hundreds of goods and services. Airlines typically offer four or five – flights, insurance, car rental, hotels, meals (plus optional customer service). And shouldn’t I be able to set up a rival Council offering a better deal – free bus tickets or lower taxes, maybe? Plus new and improved Councillors?

Second, there are well-known drawbacks to outsourcing as a business strategy. Direct costs are likely to fall. But principal-agent problems – like contract-setting and monitoring – may then raise indirect costs, particularly if privatisation is part of a money-saving drive.

Third, there are some unworked-out tensions. How to achieve ‘shrinking the organisation’, ‘more personalised services’ and behaviour change? How much say do I get about improving my health  if the Council has already cut back on fitness centres, for example?

It’s not clear if Barnet is trying to do more with less, or less with less – in other words, whether this is a pragmatic strategy or an ideological one. The council faces a growing, ageing and more demanding local population, all of which puts pressure on services. At the same time, council tax and development receipts are falling, and public spending is getter much tighter. But there also seems to be a strong preference for contracting out, encouraging self-reliance and keeping council tax low.

More broadly, should Councils have more freedom to do this kind of thing? In theory, devolution allows agents to exploit local knowledge, promote policy innovation and match local services (and taxes) to preferences. Citizens express choice through voice and exit (voting or moving to a preferred authority, as in the  Tiebout model). So devolution also leads to greater competition between Councils.

In practice there isn’t clearcut evidence that devolution pays off. And in Britain policy innovation has mostly been incremental, not radical. Part of the problem here is a lack of strong local leadership. The obvious solution is more powerful Mayors, which both main parties now favour (to differing extents).

The bigger unsolved issue is fairness. Technically, postcode lotteries are a red herring – the UK is highly centralised but public service quality is still uneven across local areas. Besides, differences in services can also express local choice. But both voice and exit are limited. Turnout in local elections is low, and so are levels of domestic mobility. So spatial sorting may not always work out as theory suggests.

And politically, fairness is the crux of the debate. Barnet has a majority of wealthy people, and those opposing Future Shape worry about the poor. Nationally, Conservatives and Labour agree that councils need more freedom over means – via general powers of wellbeing or competence. But neither is very clear on freedom over ends.

Labour wants both ironclad national standards and devolution – but is tripping up on what devolution really meansDavid Cameron wants localism – potentially, much more freedom for local authorities – but also national targets and a progressive direction overall. I’m not sure he can have all of this. For starters, in some policy areas (like welfare to work) the evidence suggests local authorities would be better off collaborating, not competing. And what if some Tory councils go further than Barnet? It will be interesting to see how bright the blue flame of localism really burns.

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