Give cities more power over their destiny

The new City Deals are a step in the right direction

Throughout July and August all eyes will be on London. Whether it is the unveiling of the Shard or the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, London is demanding the attention of the nation. It is therefore no surprise that last week’s announcement of new powers for England’s eight cities was met with little fanfare. Yet, these "City Deals" represent the most significant devolution of power from Whitehall in decades and are deserving of more attention. This is not just the summer of the capital; it is very much the summer of the cities.

England’s eight core cities and their surrounding areas are forecast to add £71bn to the economy over the next decade. But evidence suggests that they have the potential to achieve much more. That is why the City Deals, that include transport infrastructure funds, new investment for SMEs, and apprentice hubs to support NEETs, will play a crucial role in the nation’s future growth.

The first clear indication of a new relationship between central government and England’s cities was the creation of a Minister for Cities last year. Greg Clark was appointed to this role, with further support from Nick Clegg and ministers and officials in BIS, CLG and HMT. The Deals are the result of an almost year-long negotiation between Clark and his team in the Cabinet Office, Whitehall and the core cities.

Arguably of most significance are the new transport infrastructure funds. They have a combined value of over £5bn and should have significant impact on the ground. Transport has been the policy area that the Mayor of London has had most influence over; the congestion charge, tube upgrades, a bicycle hire scheme and even a cable car over the Thames, have been the result. Getting around the capital is now easier and the same could soon be true for England’s core city-regions.

Better connections will support economic growth. Leeds City Region, for example, hopes that its £1bn West Yorkshire "‘plus" Transport Fund will create a 2 per cent increase in the region’s economic output and 20,000 extra jobs. Strategic investment in new stations, roads and public transport networks could have a dramatic impact on the daily commute.

People’s daily lives and commutes do not reflect arbitrary council boundaries, so another positive to have emerged from the Deals has been councils which are increasingly willing to work together to make investments. Greater Manchester’s councils combined strategy for a new Metrolink is a demonstration of the benefits of this approach. Such collaborative governance arrangements will prevent the jam-spreading of funds that can harm local areas.

The next step for the core cities will be to ensure they deliver on the ground. There is more work for central government to do as well. Greg Clark has said that this is just round one of City Deals. 142 upper-tier councils don’t have a Deal. A devolution bill could package up some of the powers in the City Deals allowing all areas to invest for local growth.

Greg Clark, the minister in charge of City Deals. Photograph: Getty Images

Joe is a senior researcher at the New Local Government Network

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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