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Strong place-based leadership is instrumental in the battle against Covid-19

Robin Hambleton at a community event

The Covid crisis has thrown into sharp relief the need for stronger local governance in the UK. We need to rebalance local and national power, argues Robin Hambleton

The Covid-19 pandemic is now shining a revealing spotlight on the super-centralisation of power in England.  

The stand-off between political leaders in the north of England and Prime Minister Boris Johnson regarding how to deliver a sound strategy to address the Covid-19 public health emergency provides a vivid illustration of the troubling point we have now reached.

Conservative and Labour northern leaders, led by Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, have indicated that they are ready to work closely with central government on co-creating an effective strategy.  

However, in contrast to the idea of merely accepting top-down prescriptions announced by ministers in Whitehall, they see local/central relations as a two-way negotiation – one in which both sides listen to each other, demonstrate respect for each other and co-create new solutions.  

They have asked the prime minister to provide more support for workers and funding for locally led Covid-19 test-and-trace arrangements. The response from central government has been to threaten imposition of centrally determined Tier 3 Covid-19 restrictions.

“Say goodbye to democratic place-shaping, intelligent planning and tackling climate change”

Sound familiar? The government’s wholly misguided white paper on planning – Planning for the Future – proposes removing an entire stage from the planning process. Here, again, we see distant, out-of-touch figures in Whitehall striving to impose their ideas because they think that they ‘know best’.  

If these proposals are not stopped local communities and local stakeholders will have no say on planning applications in so-called ‘growth areas’. Say goodbye to democratic place-shaping, intelligent planning and tackling climate change.

In my new book – Cities and Communities Beyond COVID-19. How Local Leadership Can Change Our Future for the Better – I explain how other democratic countries are not super-centralising their planning and decision-making in this way. Indeed, the UK is entirely out of step.

Learning from good planning abroad

Take Copenhagen, a city already recognised as the healthiest capital in Europe. Lord Mayor Frank Jensen and his colleagues are now aiming for the city to be the world’s first carbon-neutral capital in 2025 – yes, that’s in five years.

Interestingly, the city is promoting cycling as an effective way of responding to the Covid-19 emergency. City leaders know that, while the city already has more bicycles than cars, much more can be done. Their strategy recognises that cyclists incur less risk of infection and that promoting cycling is a good strategy for reducing obesity levels in the population.

“As in Copenhagen, the elected local authority is a strong and trusted institution, and citizen participation in decision-making is highly developed”

Freiburg, Germany’s southernmost city, has established itself as a world leader in relation to sustainable urban development. As in Copenhagen, the elected local authority is a strong and trusted institution, and citizen participation in decision-making is highly developed. 

In Germany, all elected local authorities have constitutional protection from an overbearing central state. The beauty of this arrangement is that place-based leaders have the authority to do things differently. This enables them to break new ground and deliver entirely new solutions. For example, Martin Horn, the young and energetic Mayor of Freiburg, has recently decided that all future housing developments in the city must ensure that 50 per cent of the housing units are genuinely affordable. Yes, local leaders have the power to decide matters of this kind.

What are the key lessons for the UK?  

First, while place clearly matters a great deal in public policy, it is seriously neglected by ministers in Westminster. The current super-centralisation of decision-making in Downing Street, as many members of Parliament and most local authority leaders already recognise, needs to be reversed.

The international evidence shows that empathetic local leadership, not top-down edicts, can provide numerous routes forward for post Covid-19 recovery. The remarkable upsurge in compassion and caring that we have witnessed in recent months in communities across the country provides the lodestar for societal recovery. 

“The international evidence shows that empathetic local leadership, not top-down edicts, can provide numerous routes forward for post Covid-19 recovery”

These inspirational efforts are place-based, they stem from local understanding and are rooted in rich social networks that, in many cases, are hyper-local.

A constitutional convention on the governance of England needs to be set up as soon as possible to examine the way power has been removed from localities over the years, and to consider how to rebalance power so that communities in specific places have a real say in shaping the local quality of life.

Second, values matter. The window of political possibilities needs to move towards caring for people and the planet and away from unregulated markets and individualism. It is clear that the core value of caring –

for each other, for ourselves, and for the environment on which we all depend – should now take centre stage.

Third, planning matters. The evidence from the disaster studies literature suggests that cities and localities that look ahead, develop a far-sighted vision for their area, and have firm strategic plans in place for delivering that vision are far better placed to respond to a crisis.

The good news is that many cities, towns and localities are already doing this. Their efforts to help communities recover from this dreadful pandemic deserve to be celebrated and supported.

Robin Hambleton is emeritus professor of city leadership, University of the West of England, Bristol; director, Urban AnswersHis new book, published by Bristol University Press, is Cities and Communities Beyond Covid-19. How Local Leadership Can Change Our Future For the Better.

Image | Robin Hambleton


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