City Growth Commission – the search for local prosperity Print
Written by David Brunnen   
Monday, 13 January 2014 12:53

With the City Growth commission’s ‘Call for Evidence’ scheduled to close on January 17th I was reminded of the last time I attended a meeting organized by the Urban Land Institute.

Urban RegenerationAlthough the Real Estate, Property Development, Design and Construction sectors are all well established I described the making of 21st Century cities as a ‘Cottage Industry’ – there seemed so few really imaginative and outstanding schemes in progress and that was in 2008 just prior to widespread financial meltdowns.

Five years on many of the themes in that editorial are still apparent and possibly even more relevant as technologists shower their wizardry on hard-pressed community leaders – most of whom never asked to be Digital Champions when they sought election.

The sense that great ideas are often born out adversity was reflected in my more recent observations on the 2013 Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) Global Summit in New York.  All of the Top 7 competing communities had in some way been shaken before being stirred into action – and the real test of of leadership was to maintain the momentum over quite long periods of economic regeneration and development.

And whilst there was motivating value in a sense of competition, the 2008 article also highlighted the need for ‘Collaborative Advantage’ – the open sharing of ideas and determined knowledge transfer.

When the RSA’s City Growth Commission gets around to sifting the evidence it will not be surprising to find calls for greater flexibility in the management of Masterplans (the need for Town Planners to adapt to changing needs and circumstances) and an increased appreciation of the role of cultural activities in the development of prosperous local economies.

In 2008 I was moved to comment on the strength of will required by the ‘place makers’ – those often heroic souls who champion significant projects.  Because there were so few notable examples I guess that I marveled at their ability to pull all the strings together and secure the time, space and funding to make great things happen. 

Five years on we should not be wondering at the rarity of this regenerating enablement but should be more concerned about the freedoms (or lack of them) devolved to local leaders – particularly in funding.  The recent ‘Boom Cities’ item in Prospect magazine made the point that UK cities have far less control over their funding sources than their global competitors.

But perhaps more than ever the Growth Commission might focus attention on the development of vibrant local economies.  Some market-focused souls may say that the need for scale dictates reliance on national providers and yet others, more concerned with social fairness, may cry ‘post-code lottery’ for any deviation from the norm in public sector performance.  Diversity, however, is what makes what makes any place distinctive over and above the adequacy of the basic local utility infrastructures for digital connectivity, energy, transport and health.

Whereas we may once have marveled at the top-down tendencies of a few place-making champions there is now, courtesy of Open Data and greater digital empowerment, a far stronger environment for bottom-up citizen engagement in the making of great (and prosperous) communities.  In a call for a focus on greater local economic development, Lord Heseltine’s report of 2012 pressed the right buttons. Time now to hit those buttons again – and to keep pressing until the calls are answered.