Exposing the Illusion of Devolution By Alister Scott (Birmingham City University)

Recently our cities have been aloud with the disparate voices of devolution. This has risen like a proverbial phoenix from the aftermath of the Scottish referendum vote as the UK Government seeks to respond to criticisms of Whitehall domination of policy and decision making. Consequently, we see distinctive Scottish, English and Welsh expressions of “devo” reflecting both their different trajectories and power in the debate. In the English case the political imperative needs to redress the loss of regional autonomy which, when compared to the powerhouse of London, seems somewhat ironic given the rhetoric of Big Society and localism that have been defining characteristics of this government since 2010.

This then begs questions about what localism actually meant, means and will mean, given that now the political sound music is having to be reconstructed. Undoubtedly, there is an inherent attraction about our city regions having more power devolved from Whitehall. Raised expectations are everywhere which only makes the rhetoric all the more dangerous if such freedoms are not delivered. Yet within this constructed opportunity space there appears to be only one preset option available to secure the additional monies and power from the central government piggy bank.   This ‘managerial’ localism requires an elected mayor and is built upon a combined authorities’ model. However, despite pleas for tax raising revenues as in Scotland, the government have said no emphatically. This suggests a deficit of government trust in this local governance model delivering the kind of localism that they want.

So is this UK government pre-construction of localism fit for purpose? Many of our most pressing problems need strategic solutions where any governance model needs to work with, and across, scales and sectors to address the current disintegrated thinking and strategic planning vacuum that limits success. So the silos of housing, energy, biodiversity, employment growth, infrastructure (grey, blue and green), water management and climate change need better integration. Arguably the combined authorities model may not necessarily be the best fit for these diverse purposes as it appears that it is the money that is doing the talking, with cities scrambling to join in and have a piece of the action.

I certainly do not know or claim to have the answer on what is a complex and multilayered set of problems but it seems somewhat premature to rush hastily into this response when many people already seem dissatisfied and disengaged with our current models of local authority governance. So it is a valid to ask whether merging authorities within a further layer of political complexity through an elected mayor is a recipe for success or a political fudge?

In my mind, there should be a debate about what kind of structures are needed drawing on the lessons (positive and negative) from previous governance frameworks including regional planning. Drawing from our recent research on what successful policy and decision making looks like the primary ingredients revolve around different groups and sectors co-producing solutions rather than engineered political interventions at national and local levels that arguably are seeking to perpetuate, in some cases, discredited power bases. Behind such approaches there is strong leadership quality normally requiring them to operate outside the boundaries of the ‘box’.

Whatever expression takes root there is a major problem with the governance of our cities in the multitude of different geographies crossing the same space making coordination across the different sector priorities unnecessarily complex and largely elusive. So water (catchment management) biodiversity (local nature partnerships) economic development (local enterprise partnerships) planning (local and county/unitary authorities. Perhaps rather than add yet further layers we ought to think about a unifying landscape scale that is most relevant to these concerns ad ‘we’ the public who elect these politicians surely should have a say here. Otherwise I fear we will continue with the very disintegrated policy and public dissatisfaction that has created this political opportunity in the first place. So can I make a plea for our government and local authorities to perhaps consult their publics enabling us all to have a say in the kind of localism that we want rather than what is being allowed.

Prof. Alister Scott (@bcualisterscott)

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Urbanism and the Anthropocene: introducing the sustainability theme of the Critical Urbanists Blog By Louise Reid, University of St Andrews

On the 16th of October, a group of geologists, climate scientists and ecologists met at the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) to decide if we are in the Anthropocene: ‘the new epoch of humans’. Combining anthropo, for ‘human’ and cene, for ‘new’, the Anthropocene marks a new chapter in the history of the earth, highlighting the impact of humans. Human-induced global warming, habitat destruction, species extinction and ocean acidification are some of these key impacts. Despite the lack of official recognition via the ICS, scholars from across many academic disciplines, including the arts and humanities, have already adopted the lexicon and given it considerable attention.

Urbanisation has been widely attributed as having a key role in the advent of the Anthropocene. Over recent decades there has been considerable change in the proportion of the global population living in urban areas. According to the UN, 54% of the world’s population live in urban areas, an increase from 30% in 1950. Staggeringly, by 2050 this is forecasted to be 66%, and in 2030, the world is projected to have 41 mega-cities (those cities with more than 10 million inhabitants). Yet there is considerable diversity in the shape, scale and spaces or urban environments.

The relationship between urbanism and the Anthropocene is complex and evolving. There is a long history of urban areas being key sites for the generation of environmental ‘bads’ through rapid and unplanned growth. How the relationship between urbanism and the Anthropocene will evolve is difficult to anticipate and will in part be determined by developments in lower-middle-income countries where the pace of urbanisation is fastest. Indeed, as Mark Whitehead has suggested, ‘very little attention has been given to the places where the Anthropocene has been instigated within and orchestrated from’. In short, Mark and others have argued that we need to consider how the Anthropocene and urbanism are co-constituted. A first key issue for the ‘sustainability’ theme of the Critical Urbanist’s blog then, is to bring together pieces which seek to understand how different forms of urbanism have contributed, and continue to contribute to the Anthropocene.

That said, the significance of the environment has long influenced thinking about urbanism, specifically its form and function. To this end, a second key issue for this theme is concerned with responses to the relationship between urbanism and the Anthropocene. We would welcome, for example, pieces which examine the ways in which governments, local authorities, third sector organisations, environmental groups, businesses, groups and individuals develop policies or strategies to abate and/or mitigate environmental impacts in urban areas. For instance, in their 2010 paper, Hodson and Marvin explored responses to the Anthropocene in an urban context, assessing how developments such as eco-cities, eco-towns and floating cities are premium enclaves excluding those outwith them. As this type of literature suggests, urbanism in the Anthropocene has its own complex set of power relations which also need clearer articulation.

Lastly, a final key issue for this theme is how the relationship between urbanism and the Anthropocene is experienced. Questions we seek answers to are: ‘what is it like to experience environmental ‘bads’ in urban areas (air pollution, environmental degradation, waste etc.)?; ‘how does living in environmentally sustainable places influence us’?; and, ‘what types of future environments are desirable’. As urban areas are largely sites of consumption and waste production, it is important too to understand these phenomena and how they shape human experience. We ought also to be cognisant of the diversity of experience as well as the diversity of environs, and therefore pay attention not only to the ‘where’ and ‘why’ of experience but also the ‘who’. Which populations and social groups are most contributing to or affected by the Anthropocene?  Understanding complex relations of power is critical to this.

Together, consideration of these three key issues will form the basis of the ‘sustainability’ theme of the Critical Urbanists blog. We welcome any contributions which address one or all of these issues and are happy for contributors to interpret these issues broadly. The relationship between urbanism and the Anthropocene is worthy of significant attention and requires contributions from across academic disciplines, policy and practice – this blog should contribute to such inquiry.

Dr Louise Reid, Centre for Housing Research, University of St Andrews (@louannereid)