International LocalGov Lessons: California Dreaming


A recent trip Stateside has left LGiU’s Janet Sillett pondering the lessons that local government across the globe could learn from each other.

The late speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Tip O’Neill, famously said that “all politics are local”.

Of course he didn’t really mean what local government champions here would mean – he meant a national politician’s success is directly tied to his ability to understand and influence the issues of his constituents (which may be true to some extent). But I would rather it meant that what happens on the national stage usually has an impact on our local communities and that of course (to stretch it a bit) what happens locally can be influential nationally.

But the LGiU thinks that those principles apply globally too. And if that’s true – then local government here in Scotland has a lot to learn from what’s happening in sub-national government globally and they can learn from us. I was thinking about this when I got home from a trip through California visiting my family.

What is worrying Californians? Affordable housing – particularly where Silicon Valley has pushed up the price of housing to unbelievable amounts. The sharing economy – is it benefiting or harming local communities? Regionalism – what issues can’t be solved just at a County or a State level (the local government system is so complicated in California it makes our fragmented system look amazingly coherent).

Let’s take housing. According to the San Francisco Chronicle the only way to make California housing widely affordable is to build a lot more of it:

“We could do this with Texas-style suburban sprawl — Houston has boomed while remaining affordable — but that would sacrifice the environment. The alternative is to add residential density to existing neighborhoods, near job centers and mass transit.”

The article homes in on California wanting to allow five-story buildings near transit hubs and the subsequent legislation defeat in the Senate. This isn’t an issue in the Scotland or the rest of the UK, but what is interesting are the article’s proposals for measures that could deliver housing near transport hubs whilst reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The UK desperately needs more affordable housing and we could do with some innovative ideas around increasing investment at the same time as promoting sustainable development. Would the suggestions in the article work here? Probably not, as we have a completely different taxation system locally and nationally. But we do need to think sometimes from new perspectives and to be imaginative and creative.

What else? I was particularly interested in what Californians in local papers were saying about the sharing economy and transport.

CALCOG – a nonprofit, social welfare organisation formed to serve regional governments has this to say:

“The fight for the sidewalk is on. There was that brief rollerblade fad in the 90s (so embarrassing). And then skateboards came back (so cool). Even electric skateboards (less cool). And bikeshare. But none of that prepared cities for the electric scooter invasion. They just appeared. In San Francisco, the city attorney issued a cease and desist order.  But before we throw scooters under the bus, it’s worth asking why they’re popular. SFMTA reminds us that they are both a problem and a solution. Under a new SFMTA pilot plan, companies must have a permit to operate that includes a plan to avoid obstructing sidewalks.”

There has been a huge increase in investment companies renting out electric bikes and scooters that can be picked up and dropped off anywhere.

According to the Financial Times Uber has paid upwards of $100m to acquire Jump, a stationless electric bike rental service. The FT points out that there are concerns about this rapid rise:

“That idea could horrify or delight city authorities, which are grappling both with congested streets and the recent explosion of unlicensed pedal bikes. Early adopters, environmentalists and some transit officials may love the idea of electric vehicles replacing cars, but with complaints already mounting about bikes and scooters littering the streets in San Francisco and elsewhere, a regulatory backlash seems inevitable.”

I can vouch for that on a personal level. My sister who lives in Santa Cruz wrote to her local paper about older people and people with disabilities being run over on the boardwalk by these super cool scooters…

“You’re always going to have a tension between how cities operate, existing rules and regulations, and product innovation. Consumer demand and utilisation will not only shape the regulatory debate but determine which kind of vehicle dominates the streets.” (Financial Times).

The American website City Lab has an interesting article too that is as relevant to us as much as to the US. Dockless electric bikes and scooters could be the next big thing here.

And at the LGiU we have been covering a similar story – Dockless bike sharing (£ LGiU members only).

OK, London isn’t San Francisco and Glasgow isn’t Santa Cruz, but the issues aren’t always that different – we can learn from other countries, other councils, other jurisdictions.

Which is why we are proud to also have LGiU Ireland and LGiU England– both funded by their own members. And why we use associates who live as far away as South Africa and New Zealand.

Need a new way of raising local taxes? Well, California has one. Legalising cannabis use and sales is bringing in a lot of new revenues. Maybe a step too far though for us?