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What's my city?

Written by Peter McKinlay on May 4th, 2012.      0 comments

On 3 May, ten of England's largest cities outside London voted on whether they should have an elected mayor with substantial, but as yet undefined, executive powers.

For England it is a reflection of a growing acceptance that the Centre by itself cannot achieve the outcomes it seeks either for the economy, or in broader social and quality of life terms. It's part of the current coalition government's emphasis on greater devolution.

It is also a fascinating shift in thinking about how we govern our societies, with very real implications for other jurisdictions such as most Australian states and New Zealand which are currently reviewing their local government arrangements - how should we think about the role of cities, and indeed what cities actually are?

Sir Michael Lyons gave real impetus to this rethinking with the emphasis on ‘place shaping’ in his 2006 report on English local government. Central to this was his stress on functional rather than legal/jurisdictional boundaries.

It's at the heart of the current English debate. Yesterday’s referenda are for cities with their currently constituted boundaries. Many in England now argue that the real issue is not city mayors, but city-region mayors much like the Mayor of Greater London - see recent output from the Centre for Cities as one representative voice among many making this argument.

There are signs the government may agree. Its City Deals initiative Unlocking Growth in Cities which offers cities significant devolved funding, is more focused on the functional than jurisdictional boundaries, emphasising that " To unlock their growth potential, local leaders in the core cities will need to work effectively across their economic footprint".

The same document strongly suggests that cities will find it much easier to qualify if they have opted for the elected mayor option - and indeed the first City Deal has been done with Liverpool which moved early to an elected mayor.

What should all this mean for the debate in those Australian states, and New Zealand, where the future structure of local government is again on the table? In New Zealand, the debate is dominated by an "Auckland too” flavour. A common theme is that other regions of New Zealand (groups of territorial local authorities within the boundaries of a single regional council - a body with primarily environmental management responsibilities) should follow the Auckland precedent of forming a single council for the entire region, covering both regional and territorial functions.

But is this consistent with modern thinking about cities, functional boundaries and economic footprints? New Zealand's capital city region, Wellington, is in the early stages of the debate over whether its regional council and eight territorials should form a single unitary council. Wellington's economic footprint extends well beyond the formal regional boundary. It's at the southern end of the North Island; it's not too hard to make a case that councils at the northern end of the South Island are within Wellington's economic footprint.

The situation is potentially more dramatic in major Australian states. Sydney's economic footprint unquestionably runs from at least Newcastle in the north to Wollongong in the south. Melbourne's almost certainly encompasses the principal regional centres outside the Melbourne metropolitan region as normally understood - Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo.

In a world in which increasingly cities compete with cities, and competitive advantage depends very much on how well governance arrangements complement economic realities, does it make sense to think about restructuring local government without aligning decision-making with the economic footprint of at least our major centres?

And alongside this, how do we cope with the equally important emphasis now placed on governance at the very local level? A useful insight into how this is starting to evolve is provided in a recently published report from the Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government on Evolution in Community Governance: Building on What Works which highlights the growing extent to which people want to be directly involved in decisions which affect the place where they live.




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