Edito et opinion

Give city leaders the powers they need to
build back better

Covid-19 has tested the resilience of many city regions and left them with significant financial and operational challenges, but their leaders need a broad range of devolved powers to adapt to these short term shocks and better prepare for longer term shifts

Surely political parties of all leanings can agree on science-based targets to combat global heating, and city leaders must have the power to plan and execute local policies to clean our air, energy and footprint.

I have been quoted in the past as saying my dream job would be Mayor of London, the city where I live and work. That much is true – but in my dream, I have a broad range of fully devolved powers like the mayors of New York, Singapore or Hamburg.

I was speaking at a virtual event by international affairs organisation Chatham House about city resilience in the face of the coronavirus pandemic and other crises. It got me thinking: as we begin the long journey of building back, who is accountable for what happens in our urban areas.

Fellow panellist, Shirley Rodrigues, Deputy Mayor of London for Environment and Energy laid out the realities of a Covid-19 world: a sharp rise in expenditure to tackle the crisis; a drastic fall in income from public transport fares, business rates and council tax payments; leaves a financial black hole of nearly £500m in London’s budget. Cuts to the emergency services and cancellation of vital infrastructure projects are inevitable. But the nightmare of continued tension with central government in Downing Street over ownership of fiscal powers – the ability to raise taxes – means each side only claims limited responsibility.

Compare this to the other panellist Daniel Zarrilli, Chief Climate Policy Advisor and OneNYC Director at the New York City Mayor’s office. He talked passionately about their shift away from fossil fuels, their new environmental policies on buildings (both new and repurposed), as well as the job-creating investments into renewable energy opportunities for the city. These are things the current London Mayor, or any local leader in the UK, can only dream of.

Redefining the criteria for city success

Regardless of where the buck lies, we must wake up to the reality that people will vote with their feet. We hear a lot about the liquid workforce, but I don't think this means the end of urbanisation as the inherent attractiveness of cities remain (although much still depends on this pandemic and others being contained).

However, people will re-prioritise. Quality of life will be the main criteria, but employment opportunity is very much part of that. This means city leadership must redefine the criteria for success around amenities, culture, education and innovation – not just GDP. Traditionally, cities were developed around transport needs, specifically the car. As people re-prioritise (particularly through generational change) so cities need to redesign and manage their urban environment for future needs. Design cities for people, not pollution.

Show me a successful city, and I’ll show you a long-term cross-party vision and strategy. That is hard to do in many areas but not in relation to environmental change. Surely political parties of all leanings can agree on science-based targets to combat global heating, and city leaders must have the power to plan and execute local policies to clean our air, energy and footprint. That is what the evidence is saying – so let us listen. 

Global competition for investment, business and talent

The unplanned mass experiment in remote working means businesses will reimagine their workplaces and re-examine their location strategies – and the choices are vast. Cities are competing for investment, business and talent, and how they emerge from this crisis will be critical. For example, with Berlin as a major innovation hub, many start-ups have relocated to Germany. But in the battle for the next unicorn, less Berlin doesn’t mean more Munich – the competition is global: from the access to top class universities of Boston, the great weather of Brisbane, and the burgeoning tech scene of Budapest. 

Resilience is about adapting to change, being prepared for shocks and responding to long term shifts. It’s building back better. To keep their cities competitive with their international equivalents, city leadership must be empowered. Do I see that change coming in the UK? Unfortunately I don’t!

Adapted from an article first published in Property Week on 6 August 2020.

Views from Guy Grainger