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23/11/2015

Cooperation the key to successful devolution, say experts

Words: Simon Wicks
Bristol Planning Law Conference

Devolution of greater powers to local areas needs to be underpinned by genuinely local governance and joint spatial planning across administrative boundaries.

The most “liveable” city regions of the future will also be developed around networks of rapid transport links between and within localities.

These were the main conclusions from a day of presentations on the theme of ‘City Regions: Real or Illusory?’ for the Bristol Planning Law Conference on Thursday (19 November), organised by the University of the West of England (UWE).

Keynote speaker Robin Hambleton – UWE’s professor of city leadership – stressed that in a world in which 6.2 billion people are expected to be living in urban areas by 2050, genuine local governance was necessary to create cities shaped to the needs of people rather than “distant capital”.

Citing examples of cities transformed socially and economically by “place-based” leadership, such as Vancouver and Melbourne, Hambleton said: “If you have powerful local authorities, you realise local creativity, strengthen local democracy and energise local businesses and civil society.”

Hambleton noted that the most “liveable” cities were ones that enshrined principles of social justice, including accountable leadership, citizen participation in decision-making, local business support, a planning focus on public realm and firm management of private developers.

Effective public transport, too, was “key to the inclusive city”, he said, citing Curitiba’s rapid bus transit system as an example of a cost-effective means of reducing private vehicle congestion and opening up more of the city to the population.

However, England’s proposed devolution offering fell wide of the mark, Hambleton claimed.  “The Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill represents a super-centralised state,” he said, because “ministers are negotiating the exact details of deals with local authorities.”

David Turner, director of development for North Somerset Council, argued the case for marrying land use planning with transport planning in England’s emerging city regions. Within the “polycentric” city region around Bristol, this meant Bristol and three unitary authorities working on joint spatial and transport plans.

“We wanted to produce a plan that was legally binding and we were hoping that it would speed up local plan making,” he explained. “It might even exceed the requirements of the duty to cooperate. But we need to respond to new housing and employment growth requirements.”

“If we want the things that cities provide we have got to get started with a city and you have got to find locations that are well connected with transport"

Housing was one of the region’s greatest challenges, with 85,000 new homes required over the next 20 years, but only 56,000 planned for. Affordability was a growing issue and reform was needed to the UK’s housebuilding model, said Turner, with reform of the land market and less reliance on volume housebuilders. This all needed to be underpinned by strong strategic local leadership – but authorities need stronger incentives to work across boundaries, he said.

Speaking on behalf of Birmingham, which has just signed a devolution deal, the city council’s head of development and planning strategy Ian Macleod explained that the city was proposing to build 51,000 new houses by 2031 – and had negotiated a co-ordinated response to the city’s housing market area with neighbouring authorities.

For Dr Nicholas Falk, who closed the conference, housing development would need to be linked to transport corridors and hubs. The founder of consultancy Urbed and joint author of the winning proposal for 2014’s Wolfson Economics Prize also argued that we should be looking at small and medium-sized towns to carry the bulk of the nation’s extra housing.

“If we want the things that cities provide we have got to get started with a city and you have got to find locations that are well connected with transport,” he said.

Read our full report of the conference here.

PHOTOGRAPHY | DAVE PRATT PHOTOGRAPHY

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