London’s level of autonomy and flexibility in planning should be extended to the UK’s other major cities.

Perhaps the most significant medium-to-long-term issue for our cities is how they are governed. Who manages cities is being increasingly debated in the US and UK. The US based Brookings Institute (in their publication Metropolitan Revolution) cite the increasing number of city governments that are leading innovation as state and national governments fail to undertake reform with hostile upper houses and a lack of bipartisan cooperation. Similarly in the UK localism and devolution are being advocated.

This debate is needed in Australia also. In December 2014 I met with professors John Tomaney and Michael Edwards of the Bartlett School of Planning, University College London, and Andrew Carter, chief executive of the UK Centre for Cities in London, in my role as conjoint professor at the Faculty of Built Environment at the University of New South Wales.

The UK Centre for Cities is an independent city advocate that produces a number of excellent reports. They address key issues and advocate positions that inform government policy.

Andrew Carter noted that regional planning bodies and planning in the UK have been abolished. This has placed a larger responsibility on local government. While some in the UK believe that London receives an unfair proportion of funds compared to other UK cities, and that this is the reason for decline – especially in the North – Carter argues that it is the London governance model that is to a large extent the reason for its success (refer to their 2014 report on their website).

Unlike other UK cities, significant powers and responsibilities have been devolved to London. The mayor of London develops the Plan for Greater London and the 33 local authorities in London are to take this plan into account (cohesive governance rather than amalgamations?). Transport for London comes under the mayor.

In the Centre for Cities’ view, London’s level of autonomy and flexibility should be extended to the UK’s other major cities as they suffer from a lack of strategic planning and regional structure. Their 2014 annual report benchmarks the UK’s secondary and tertiary cities and finds that they underperform significantly in comparison to London.

Indicators such as public transport patronage are clear indicators of a city’s performance. In London 60-70 per cent of workers take public transport to work. In the other large UK cities this reduces to 15-20 per cent, which is very low for cities of this size. Interestingly in Manchester there are over 80 private bus companies. While London can manage its bus system and implement an Oyster Card, Manchester has little say. The result is that pubic transport suffers.

Whether city level governance is really the solution may be observable as a number of initiatives are being implemented in Manchester this year.

This will include devolving significant infrastructure funds known as an “Earnback Model” where the central government has agreed in principle that up to £1.2 billion invested up front in infrastructure improvements by Greater Manchester will be “paid back” to the combined authority as real economic growth is seen. This is the first tax increment finance-style scheme in England outside London. It will be well worth watching from Australia!

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Philip Graus is a director and chair of Cox Architecture. He is an architect and planner, working principally on urban planning and housing projects. Philip was appointed as the inaugural Conjoint Professor at the Faculty of Built Environment, University of New South Wales in 2014 to build engagement and alignment between practice, teaching and research. His particular interest is in evidence based city research.