Posts Tagged ‘localism’

What Works

September 11, 2013

As some of you will know, LSE, the Centre for Cities and Arup will be running the new What Works Centre on local economic growth.

The Centre will conduct systematic reviews of UK and international research, ranking the most effective interventions, and will work closely with local government, local enterprise partnerships and other ‘users’ to help develop stronger economic policymaking across the UK. As NICE and the EEF already do, it may eventually commission research too.

The Centre has just begun work – we had a great workshop today with a number of our local partners – and we’ll formally launch later in the Autumn. We’ll be part of a network of six working on health, education, ageing, crime reduction and early intervention as well as local economies.

Henry Overman is stepping down from SERC to lead the Centre. I’m becoming one of the Deputy Directors, and will be working at LSE alongside my research-focused role at NIESR. I’ll be leading on the academic workstream, co-ordinating the systematic reviews and demonstrator projects, as well as advising Henry on the Centre’s direction.

We’ll be working with a strong team of academics across the country – in Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle and Bristol, as well as London. We’ll also team up with New Economy Manchester on capacity-building and demonstrator projects. And we’ll be using the UK-wide networks developed by Centre for Cities and Arup.

Developing a new organisation from scratch is exciting, challenging and a huge amount of work, as I can attest from my early days at the Centre for Cities. Unlike most start-ups, we are very lucky to have secure initial funding. And we have an emerging body of good practice to draw on. But we still have a great deal to do in the months ahead. I look forward to working with many of you as we build out.

City Deals: The Second Wave

October 30, 2012

Some thoughts from yesterday’s City Deals workshop, fronted up by Nick Clegg and Greg Clark, and ably compered by Alex.

The major announcement was that 20 cities and city-regions get the chance to bid for a ‘Wave 2’ deal. It’s a competition – the Cabinet Office sift bids around the turn of the year. Successful pitches will get a ‘core package’ plus local options, then go live sometime in 2013.

There was also lots of reflection on the wider Deals process – now almost a year old.  I got quite excited about all this back in December. Some real challenges are now emerging.


Some immediate points on the Wave 2 proposals. First, we need more detail on the sift criteria, and a sense of how many cities will get through. I suspect the Cabinet Office and HMT may have different views on this. Officials are also working on core package specifics. I’d expect skills, transport and finance to feature – and perhaps, Earnback-type arrangements for everyone?

Second, not all the 20 are city-regions. Ministers say local groups should self-organise. But the evidence says fitting the right policy asks to the appropriate scales is crucial. Relying on local political coalitions may not result in genuine functional economic areas.

Some wider issues:

1/ What can we expect? Ministers were very confident that City Deals will achieve substantive economic change: ‘the leadership of cities is incredibly important to their success’, said one. But the evidence is ambiguous on whether these direct effects actually exist. There may be indirect links from empowered leadership to growth – say, if this helps secure investment, or produces innovative policies. City Deals will help test that argument.

2/ It’s the process, stupid – as I’ve said, this is a long game. Getting the systems right is crucial – on negotiation and sift in the short term, and delivering culture change in the longer term. Like industrial strategy, the Deals system has to be flexible, and allow for failure.

As Dani Rodrik argues, in some ways process is more important than content in these situations. City Deals are basically experiments, and some won’t work out. The right institutional setting and rules are fundamental – not least to identify failure quickly. So it’s good that Core Cities will get a chance to renegotiate Deals in future, for example. Wave 2 cities should also get this.

3/ Whitehall as blockage – Clegg, Clark and others were very open about problems persuading some parts of Whitehall to engage (shades of Blair’s ‘scars on my back’ speech?).

Some of these blockages were already emerging last year, and Ministers and the Cities Policy Unit have done well to minimise these. But I guess one reason for the Wave 2 announcement is to keep the pressure up, co-opt city leaders in the cause, and build a critical mass of devolutionary pressure.  There will be severe tests of political leadership ahead, especially on welfare and benefits.

4/ Peer support and mentoring – Central government is investing in mentoring for cities – each gets a Cities Unit ‘partner’, alongside a senior ‘sherpa’ for each LEP. The Core Cities group also says it’s interested in peer support advising Wave 2. This is welcome stuff, which will be essential for some of the candidate cities. However …

5/ Too far, too fast? – Central government capacity is now getting very stretched. The officials are good, but there’s only so many of them. Even if over half the Wave 2 candidates are sifted out, this still doubles the workload. And there was some talk yesterday of a Wave 3, covering rural areas, before 2015.

This rapid roll-out has already drawn some fire from New Economy Manchester. There’s clearly  a political argument for acceleration. But Ministers should be very careful it doesn’t come at the expense of effective delivery. Official capacity needs beefing up. And again, process is key. Individual Deals should move forward at different speeds; some will be renegotiated; some may need a pause.

Will City Deals succeed?

December 15, 2011

Last week Ministers unveiled substantial new powers for English cities. How will these work out at street level?

I’ve posted some thoughts on the prospects for City Deals on the SERC blog.

I think City Deals could profoundly change the way central and local government work together. For urban policy geeks like me that’s pretty exciting. However, I’ve kept the analysis as calm as possible. Both Whitehall and cities face some major obstacles to making City Deals work, and we won’t see the results for a while yet.

Now read on

Localism on crack

July 16, 2010

The terrifying prospect of Eric Pickles as Tom Cruise still lingers after his recent LGA speech. But amongst all the one-liners, the shape of localism is becoming clearer.

First it’s cash and rules-light – ‘less money, more freedom’, as Jon Rouse puts it. Second, as Julian Dobson says, it’s a bit centralist right now. That’s not surprising – the Minister has the tricky job of devolving via the machinery of central government.

Most importantly, localism points in several directions at once. Councils get more freedom, but so do community groups and local people. For me, this is the most radical bit – and the most radical idea isn’t big city Mayors, but direct votes on local taxes.

The Economist memorably referred to local referendums as ‘the crack cocaine of democracy’. So should we be worried about what Eric might (or might not) call ‘freebase localism’?

The referendum proposal focuses on council tax. At the moment Whitehall can cap council tax levels ‘to protect council taxpayers from excessive increases’. The Coalition wants to replace capping with local votes on whether taxes are too high.

Getting rid of capping is a good thing. It’s not transparent, and it’s verging on the undemocratic. It’s not obvious we need to replace capping with direct votes, however.


In the jargon, local people already have choice (of parties), voice (in local elections) and exit (moving out). Of course local elections are every four years, voter turnout is often low, and many people don’t find it easy to move. Direct democracy seems to raise turnout, and plugs people straight into decision-making.

The big problem with Eric’s proposal is the loaded question issue. It’s effectively a massive nudge for lower taxes – although the Coalition is silent on what ‘low enough taxes’ means in practice. That will put an automatic, and potentially destabilising limit on council revenues. In turn, that makes it harder for Councils to provide effective services – especially in a ‘post-bureaucratic’ age of changing social structures and more demanding consumers.

California is an extreme example of where low-tax bias takes you. Under Proposition 13, the state has capped property taxes *and* requires a supermajority for any revenue-raising measures. Right now, recession-hit public finances are in a total mess, but it’s proving politically impossible to pass a budget. As a result, one small town is now disbanding its police force.


Councils might get round the loaded question if they had other means of raising money, besides council tax. Right now they don’t: over 80% of council finance comes direct from Whitehall.

The bigger issue here is the disconnect between local taxes, local votes and local services. Because the latter are largely grant-funded, it’s not properly clear to voters what they’re voting on, and how that vote might change local  services. Worse, Council tax hasn’t reflected real house values for years.

As Dermot suggests, councils should call the Coalition on localism. As well as proper incentives for housing growth, how about:

1) new money-raising tools – a green light for Accelerated Development Zones, and borrowing on the Housing Revenue Account;

2) a clearer link between local taxes and local services – the Review of Local Government Finance should push a revaluation of council tax, relocalising the business rate, and arguably a local income tax (as proposed by the Lib Dems).

With all this in place, I’m not sure local referendums are needed. Votes will really make a difference to services – and taxes. That should raise both turnout and political engagement. And if local taxes are too high, politicians will exit via the ballot box.

In other words, really show us the money. And just say no to crack.

So, farewell then …

July 9, 2010

… eco-towns, by the look of it. This is a good thing. Eco-towns are largely unloved, often in the middle of nowhere, and would have little impact on overall CO2 emissions.

Dermot (and Adam Marshall) have rightly criticised eco-towns for distracting from the much bigger task of greening Britain’s cities. As I’ve explored elsewhere, that’s a job which should have both a significant impact on the UK’s carbon footprint, but also much greater economic development potential.

Eco-towns have also failed dismally at being the kind of demonstration project the Government originally envisaged. There are much better examples abroad, both self-standing cities like Masdar in Abu Dhabi, and (more realistically) urban extensions like those in Vauban, Freiburg, or Hammarby Sjostan, Stockholm.

The latter also have the benefit of localist in design and delivery. In the coming months, let’s hope the Coalition can give British cities the financial flexibilities to try something similar.

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