Neoliberalism imposes a policy framework on local councils which has two components:
‘roll-back’ and ‘roll-out’. Roll-back neoliberalism comprises reductions in the role and powers of local councils, most obviously through massive cuts in grants to urban authorities, but also through legislative restrictions (e.g. Gove’s requirement that all new schools had to be academies or free schools, not LA schools). Roll-out neoliberalism is the putting in place of a new transformed model of local government. Driving this is the function of the Kerslake Review, because for government the transformation in Birmingham is not going far enough or fast enough.
For Kerslake a model that Birmingham should emulate is Leeds. The Review makes favourable reference four times to Leeds. This is one:
‘Other local authorities, such as Leeds (see ‘Example Strategic Planning Framework’ box p.35), have used their civic leadership role to develop a shared narrative and priorities for their city’s future. They have used this to help agree shared strategic objectives across the city and to form the partnerships that are needed to deliver them.’ (p36. Also pp16, 39, 48.)
Eric Pickles has just announced the Improvement Panel put in place to ensure BCC implements the Kerslake Review. It comprises four people, one of whom is Keith Wakefield, leader of Leeds city council.
Leeds is a city of about 750,000, smaller than Birmingham but comparable in size. Its social composition is not dissimilar but its economic profile is different. Both cities experienced radical decline in their traditional industrial base but Leeds has successfully reinvented itself as the most important financial centre outside London. Rather like Birmingham, it has had a Labour council for decades apart from a Conservative-LibDem interregnum from 2004-2010.
In this account we draw on three recent research studies of Leeds. They agree that what defines local government there is ‘the concept of Leeds as a civic entrepreneur’.’ This comprises four themes:
1. ‘A more pro-business and pro-active role regarding planning and development.’
2. ‘A trimming down of local authority responsibilities to focus on key basic functions (such as children and adult social care) while outsourcing or sharing other functions with private and third sectors.’
3. ‘A nurturing and encouraging of the ‘civic’ spirit of businesses who are meant to ’put something back into the community’… Examples include the need to include apprenticeships and jobs for local people in new projects but also the engagement of the private sector in governance…’
4. ‘Promotion of an ‘enterprising organisational culture that has the needs of our community and anti-poverty as its heart…’’ (Gonzalez and Oosterlynck, p3174)
A partnership with business in a leading role
Birmingham council has always had a pragmatic partnership with the private sector, but one of Kerslake’s main criticisms is that it has failed to establish a formal partnership model of governance, in particular with the private sector, at its centre. In contrast Leeds did so 25 years ago.
‘… In the 1990s the city developed a ‘Corporate City’ model, establishing formal partnership mechanisms between the public and private sectors to steer local economic development strategies. The core of this partnership has been the ‘Leeds Initiative, established in 1990…’ (Gonzalez and Oosterlynck, p3167)
‘Leeds has developed its own variety of urban entrepreneurial development, based on property-led regeneration […]. It has strived to develop a Corporate City with public-private partnership at its heart. In short, a finance and real estate-led urban growth model.’ (Gonzalez and Oosterlynck, p3168)
‘It was this corporatist, pro-growth approach and the leading role that the private sector played in it that earned Leeds the label of ‘Corporate City’ in the mid-1990s (Haughton & Williams, 1996).’ (Meegan, p46)
Kerslake recommends that Birmingham council bases itself on a partnership model with the private sector, the third sector and the community. This is the ‘Leeds Initiative’ model. The twin priorities are supposed to be economic growth and social inclusion. This parallels Birmingham’s priorities in Albert Bore’s annual Leader’s statements of ‘prosperity’ and ‘fairness.’ But the research evidence in Leeds is that business interests are dominant and ‘social inclusion’ is marginalised.
‘The Vision for Leeds accorded strategic equivalence to market growth and inclusion but … respondents saw the primary function of the LI as cultivating the city-business partnership. The partnership moved towards incorporating voluntary and community representatives – a national priority after New Labour came to office in 1997. The Leeds Chamber did not object but insisted that the ‘heart’ of the partnership should continue to be itself and the city council (Leeds Chamber, 1996: 27). Community activists believed they were occupying a subaltern role.’ (Davies and Msengana-Ndlela, p6)
‘…the lack of institutional ‘knitting’ was purposeful, deriving from decisions about how to manage competing priorities within the partnership and driving social inclusion to the margins. Said a local politician, ‘you can go and ask the Community and Voluntary Sector…how do they feel? They feel like second class citizens … the private sector feel quiet at heart now, because they’ve got what they wanted’.’ (Davies and Msengana-Ndlela, p6)
One of the key proposals of Kerslake is that Birmingham should set up an ‘independent Birmingham Leadership Group’ with significant powers – for example, to approve the council’s strategic plan. Leeds points towards one possible model.
‘…a ‘Best City Leadership Network’ has been set up to meet and discuss issues arising from the annual ‘State of the City’ reports (see Leeds City Council & Leeds Initiative, 2011, 2012 for the first two). The Network engages with five strategic partnerships structured around the main themes of the current ‘Vision for Leeds’ and the Council’s individual Corporate
Plans and ‘Best Council Plan’ (Leeds City Council, 2013).’ (Meegan, p50)
‘The partnership arrangements are no longer managed by a team working at arms-length from the Council but directly by Executive Members of the Council and the Council’s Corporate Leadership Team. The Council administers the Leadership Network and four of the five strategic partnerships are chaired by councillors, the exception being the ‘Sustainable Economy and Culture Board’ that is chaired by a representative from the local Chamber of Commerce. In this way, the Council is attempting to provide not only clear civic leadership but also the democratic accountability that governance needs and what some critics found to be lacking or compromised in previous arrangements.’ (Meegan, p50)
This partnership model requires a slimmed down but strong centralised Council – as recommended by Kerslake – to promote business interests.
‘In Leeds, politicians and officers are moulding a new discourse of the local authority as an entrepreneur, with reduced and more focused functions but more interventionist in order to enable private-sector development.’ (Gonzalez and Oosterlynck, p 3175)
Business development and growing social inequality
The consequence of the marginalisation of ‘social inclusion’, i.e. working class interests, in this business-led strategy is increasing social inequality in Leeds.
‘Despite widespread recognition of dilemmas associated with the bias towards business development and the limits of trickle down, local leaders remained committed to business-led development.’ (Davies and Msengana-Ndlela, p5)
It also raises questions about both democracy in the city and environmental sustainability.
‘…academics were still raising concerns a decade later over the degree to which economic development in this period was being driven by an unaccountable private sector and the related challenges that this raised for both democratic control of that growth and environmental sustainability…’ (Meegan, p46)
The council has continued this policy despite the financial crisis of 2008 and the consequent cuts in the council budget and rise in unemployment, which hit working class communities hardest.
‘…from early 2010 onwards and reflecting a more general optimistic outlook in the global economy the discourse shifted towards a highlighting of the resilience of the Leeds economy, particularly of the financial sector in which there were less job losses than initially reported. This discourse served to obscure the severe impact of the crisis on the overall economy of Leeds and of austerity measures on the population, but contestation of the latter has not been able to make its imprint on the urban governance system. Quite to the contrary, Leeds city council is trying to reinvent itself as a ’civic entrepreneur’…’ (Gonzalez and Oosterlynck, p3176)
‘As for the uneven impact of the crisis in Leeds, the resilience discourse is heavily biased towards its most visible (or most showcased) part, namely the financial industry.’ (Gonzalez and Oosterlynck, p3173)
‘Those ‘more resilient’ residents will be those who are able to replace those services with services provided by private companies, family support and by spending more money on transport.’ (Gonzalez and Oosterlynck, p3173)
Jonathan S. Davies and Lindiwe G. Msengana-Ndlela (2014) Urban power and political agency: Reflections on a study of local economic development in Johannesburg and Leeds. Cities: The International Journal of Urban Politics and Planning, online first September, 1-13.
Sara Gonzalez and Stijn Oosterlynck (2014) Crisis and resilience in a finance-led city: Effects of the global financial crisis in Leeds. Urban Studies, November, 51: 3164-3179.
Richard Meegan (2014) City profile – Leeds. Cities: The International Journal of Urban Politics and Planning, onlinefirst, October, 42-53.