England & Wales, Global Communities and society, Democracy, devolution and governance

Places can and do get worse as well as better

Photo by Kobby Mendez on Unsplash

With one week to go until the General Election, I am going to take the risk that even the politically engaged readers of The MJ might like to think about something else and am going to try and make this an election-free column.

I say try, because the themes I want to explore around place and the nature of progress are at least implicitly engaged in the General Election debate.

We know local government is unlikely to shoot to the top of any new Government’s agenda, but we might also anticipate that as we get into 2020 we will see a renewed emphasis on local government’s role in building local and sub-regional economies and on public service delivery especially in adult social care and children’s services. And we can feel the first stirrings of a new conversation about devolution and potentially reorganisation.

Against this there is a quiet but persistent counter-current that insists on local government’s role as a guardian or leader of place. That is not new, of course. ‘Place-shaping’ was The MJ’s word of the year way back in 2006. But it is important that it is not overshadowed by a purely functionalist account of local government’s economic and service delivery roles.

To remind us why this matters, what it means and what is at stake, we might take a view from afar.

Last month, at the United Cities and Local Government World Summit, I listened to a talk by Aníbal Gavira, former mayor of Medellín in Colombia about how they transformed the city from one of the most violent and unstable cities in the world into a prosperous, peaceful and increasingly sustainable place, including a 95% reduction in the murder rate.

It is a story I was familiar with and have seen the results, but had never heard from the people who did it.

Mr Gavira stressed five key factors focusing on the peripheries: tackling inequalities; investing in early years provision; high quality public space and buildings, especially in marginal areas, and innovative approaches to urban mobility. ‘Public space’, he said is ‘equity space’. These interventions were considered part of an integrated change model and ran alongside a programme of public narrative, building on the type of place they wanted to be and become.

We have to be careful about how we treat case studies from other places. They translate in complex and incomplete ways and we can’t always draw simple lessons from them. As the anthropologist Clifford Geertz once said: ‘If you wanted home truths, you should have stayed at home’. There is a tendency to treat Medellín as an inspirational story (which it is), but counterintuitively, we should also treat it as a cautionary tale.

Everything they did in Medellín are things councils across the UK are doing, but they are arguably all areas in which our capacity to act is diminished.

No-one is suggesting that British cities are going to become like Medellín in the 1990s, but we also need to acknowledge increasing levels of inequality, knife crime and homelessness in many parts of the UK. Place-shaping is never complete. Places can and do get worse as well as better.

So, by all means let’s take the Medellín story as a positive example of what local government leadership of place can achieve, but let us also reverse the optic and see it as a warning about where you can get to if local government does not have an active leadership role and the resources to act upon it.

Jonathan Carr-West is Chief Executive of the LGIU. This article first appeared in The MJ.

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