Hamburg has the hansa
Having vented my irritation on government for repeated delays in the publication of the Localism Bill I found that I had wrong footed myself by being out of the country on publication day. We were wandering the snowy strasses of Hamburg on a long weekend and, as usual, I was musing on the differences and national traits that cities reveal. I should get out more.
Hamburg is a city with a long term growth ambition and a firm belief that growth is good (of the sustainable variety obviously). Hafencity http://www.hafencity.com/en/home.html may be taking longer than first expected but there is a feeling of inevitability about this grand plan as the first phases of residential, commercial and cultural development are well underway. There is a city pride in the development and an inquisitive populace drawn to see the changing waterfront, the opera house, the new architecture alongside beautifully restored warehouses. Back in town the burghers crowd their public spaces, gather around the Xmas market stalls and cheerfully glug their gluhwein. Hamburg seems like a confident city.
Back to Austerity
On the other hand, back in Blighted, confidence isn’t something I encountered in huge measure while attending the Centre for Cities launch of a confused and less than convincing report, ‘Grand Designs? A new approach to the built environment in England’s cities’, and I’m a big fan of the Centre for Cities so I was looking forward to the event.
One rather obvious lesson to be drawn from this document is that growth is not guaranteed, it happens in some places but not others and decline can happen in urban population and jobs, often hand in hand. Conclusions of this kind are already well understood. The report goes on to emphasise that cities, city-regions and economic areas are not homogenous and that we need to understand the growth variations that occur within them. Again, this is not a revelation that should surprise you. Local authorities and developers have already learnt the hard way with empty apartment blocks and inactive hi-tech business parks to remind them.
So far we are being told what we already know. The report then picks over Labour’s regional policies, queries the investment multiplier impact of RDAs that the NAO evidenced and concludes that physical regeneration programmes have ‘not transformed economic outcomes for the people living in underperforming areas’. This strikes me as a hugely generalised statement. Apparently such projects suffer from a ‘pervasive optimism bias’ ie we exaggerate the positive impact and play down risk, cost and other negatives. Again, tell us something we don’t know. Analysis of optimism bias has been around for a while and with greater rigour than this report offers especially in the evaluation of mega-projects. Let’s be honest, overruns are commonplace on big, complex infrastructure projects and both delivery and funding agencies have tacitly lived with it. Failure to deliver outputs is also a phenomenon we see in skills and employment programmes so don’t just pick on the capital projects. In reality the worst excesses have been curbed, contracts are tighter and penalty clauses are now common currency but a tendency toward optimism will never entirely go away.
Causes for Optimism
Would the London 2012 bid have succeeded if the true cost had been revealed (all candidate cities gloss their cost estimates)? The Humber Bridge, Newcastle Metro, Wembley Stadium, the Channel Tunnel all significantly exceeded their cost estimates but on what timeline can we realistically decide that the return on investment should have succeeded or failed to accrue? Every UK region can point at some major infrastructure project that had cost over-runs in both public and private projects. The Centre for Cities seems to be telling us that we don’t need big public led infrastructure because it costs more than it delivers. In reality it can be a slow burn on capital projects, perception precedes reality and the full value and impact of such projects takes time and is multi-faceted. Simple, short to medium term assessments don’t necessarily answer the question.
The Centre for Cities’ report then addresses housing and decides that the public sector failed because it encouraged house building in the wrong places by concentrating on areas of lower house prices. I lose the logical thread here because a) I thought that was the area of market failure that justifies public intervention and b) public sector funding builds affordable and rented homes so the sale price of houses per se isn’t the right criterion.
Where Centre for Cities does seem to hold some high ground is its argument that public money has been used to build homes that will not be filled in areas of structural decline ie cities that are already too big for their future prospects and lack the economic growth capacity. The argument extends to efforts to protect and promote employment sites in places that have no sustainable employment future. Such traditionalism and refusal to accept a new future has historically been the province of local authorities but is a distinctly declining phenomenon. Housing Pathfinders tried to do it differently and dare I say RDAs went a long way to control unrealistic council investment plans.
This is where the Centre for Cities should be applying itself in trying to develop alternatives. Otherwise their message is one we have heard already from the Policy Exchange. and more recently from David Shakespeare, leader of the Conservative group on the Local Government Association (LGA),Northerners should abandon their towns and cities and move south.
Big, physical investment is clearly not always the solution to city regeneration. Reinventing mill towns and peripheral ports as global hi-tech, bio-medical, green energy, finance centres is probably not going to cut it. Big and brash is expensive and often inappropriate but the funding processes, politicians and agencies involved conspire to encourage such plans through constant competitive bidding and the tyranny of innovation. I have no reason to believe that Regional Growth Fund won’t be the same.
Perhaps the future direction for urban regeneration lies as much in lower tech efforts to build better places, encourage local business development and sow the seeds of future investment. Tried and tested approaches rather than the spurious newness we have to demonstrate. We need answers to our declining urban areas especially if the alternative is mass domestic migration.
Time for Objectivity
The Centre for Cities is right to challenge outdated thinking as it has consistently done in the past but this report’s heavy handed assault on public sector led physical regeneration smacks of a lack of objectivity and an unseemly chase after new agendas. It is the responsibility of elected representatives and their professional officers to try to deliver appropriate regeneration solutions and not just to reflect a market preference. Sometimes the market should be resisted and developers sent back to the drawing board. Public sector investment should be allowed to have a higher purpose, take risks and be in the vanguard. We are now moving into a period of much reduced budgets so the capacity of public agencies to fund infrastructure will be a moot point. A new alignment of investment practice needs to be discovered. The Centre for Cities would do well to concentrate its efforts on helping local government and its partners to find practical, cost effective solutions that show returns, especially when we consider that funding streams such as Regional Growth Fund are a pittance compared to previous regional budgets.
The Centre for Cities has always impressed me with its rigorous evidence, imaginative statistical analyses and innovative conclusions. It has kept many of us urbanistas on our toes with its challenges to established thinking on place making, economy, housing, the role of the public sector, infrastructure financing and the rest. I hope it stays that way but the apparent shift toward a neighbourhoods and community focus seems to me to be a knee jerk realignment in the face of as yet untested government agendas. There are complex interactions to deliver good places and successful communities. Capital infrastructure is a key component yet the report fails, for example, to explore transport and connectivity and has no real assessment of the value of public realm and green space.
You are the Centre for Cities. Don’t be the Centre for localities, neighbourhoods, super-output area or any other urban sub-division that is policy flavour of the month. By all means address the component areas of the city but keep faith with the city itself.
Take my tip: have a weekend in Hamburg. It restored my faith in the city (with a little help from gluhwein).