Leading London in 2016, learning from other cities

David Robinson

Monday, 12 August 2013

Media interest in Ed Miliband’s speech on party reform last month  focused on the relationship with the trade unions. It would be easy but wrong to overlook another commitment in the closing section of the speech which was, potentially, equally significant.  Primaries for the selection of a mayoral candidate  open up the possibility of a different kind of politics and a different kind of leadership in London and beyond.

It is an historic opportunity to challenge our candidates, to stretch our vision of the possible and to re imagine the mayoralty.

The London mayor holds the biggest directly elected mandate in the country. That electorate deserves more than a loyal ambassador from central office and better than an able administrator. We need to rethink the purpose of the office and consider more  than the sum of its responsibilities – transport, policing, housing, planning. All these issues are very  important  and transport, in particular, has been a crucial  election battleground but the mayor should be bigger than minister for bus fares. We need to unleash the voice, the visibility and the unique capacity to convene.

The challenge and the opportunity

In “The Metropolitan Revolution” published in the UK last month  Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley argue that “Cities and metropolitan areas are action oriented.  They reward innovation, imagination, and pushing boundaries.  As networks of institutions they run businesses, provide services, educate children, train workers, build homes, and develop community.  They focus less on promulgating rules than on delivering the goods and using cultural norms rather than regulatory mandates to inspire best practice.  They reward leaders who push the envelope, catalyze action, and get stuff done.”

From Jussi Pajunen in Helsinki and  Kgosientso Ramokgopa in Tshwane to  Christian Estrosi in Nice and Park Won-soon in Seoul, City Mayors are breaking new ground around the world and cities are working in ways that nation states cannot. Amsterdam, for instance, has a programme for reducing carbon emissions by 40% by 2025 – twice as high as the pan European goal. There seems to be something about the scale of the cities which makes a radical vision both achievable and worth doing and  something about the nature of their leadership which is capable of transcending national politics and building  the consensus for bold alternatives.

Neither Ken Livingstone nor Boris Johnson could be described as typical Westminster politicians but both had a history in their parliamentary parties and the latter certainly intends to have a future. Perhaps the associations have been too close, or maybe, for the Livingstone administration at least,  the office was too young, but whatever the reason and what ever their individual merits neither used the mayoralty to  develop a particularly distinctive approach or to deliver a radical long term vision for the future of London.

In three years time the capital may at best be starting to emerge from prolonged recession. The public sector and particularly those who need it most, will be the last to recover. The next mayor will inherit a city in which public services have been fundamentally disfigured by deep cuts in public expenditure repeatedly imposed on communities where demographic change has been simultaneously increasing need. He or she will have limited responsibility for those services but a unique influence and capacity for facilitating collaboration. There will be both the opportunity and a driving imperative to articulate a fresh vision and to forge in London a new settlement between citizen and community, community and state.

Three Jobs

I am writing in Canning Town, a couple of miles from the financial heart of the fourth richest country in the world. A child born here today is half as likely to live to 75 as the average UK baby.

The big poster targeting benefit fraud in the bus shelter over the road  is not matched by one targeting tax evasion in the cab ranks of Canary wharf even though maximising tax revenue would make a far bigger difference to the exchequer.

Often the public discourse on these matters is about right and left. Sometimes its about right and wrong. Ignoring the most disadvantaged, worse still blaming the poor for their poverty, is just wrong.

Who in London is making these moral arguments? Who is talking loudly about the facts?

Our democratic structures, imperfectly but adequately, provide for governance that is representative and stable but what of day to day engagement and collaboration? How and where do our stakeholders come together, work together and project a shared narrative? Who is pulling together our services, our individual resources, our separate enterprises for the benefit of us all?

London’s 12m people are, for the most part, free, diverse and well educated. Our capability is extraordinary but what of our performance?  What is our mind stretching ambition for ourselves? Where is our collective vision, our category shifting,  ground breaking contribution to the wider world, and who makes it happen?

All of this matters but because none of it is any one persons responsibility, none of it gets done.

A good mayor would realise the power of influence and do three things:

  • Speak out
  • Pull together
  • Think bigger

Speak out

There was a time when local newspapers delved and campaigned, when Councils resisted the rate cap, tenants organized and unions marched in numbers, and when these forces of democratic challenge were widely supported.  UK Uncut continues to demonstrate  the power of direct action whilst London Citizens, Avaaz and Hope not Hate show that it is still possible to engage large numbers in different ways and win the argument but it has lately become much easier to vilify and victimize our most disadvantaged communities in London without effective, popular challenge.

This is wrong. London is a wealthy city. We can afford to be fair. It is not always a happy, healthy or productive one. We cannot afford to be unfair.

The capital needs a leader who can inform public opinion and  articulate an ethical argument not always expecting to win but doggedly shifting the moral centre of the conversation.  A mayor who will listen to and speak for those whose voices are seldom heard and little understood.

Do that well and we can change this city. More than that, see how Boris Johnson has deployed the bully pulpit to plague the prime minister and become one of the UKs most recognisable politicians.  Imagine how worthwhile that might have been if only he had something to say that opened hearts and minds, that was constructive, healing, generous, collaborative, bold or inspiring.  Speak here and be heard a far.

Deeds matter in this context almost as much as words. The overweight Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett led the whole community on a campaign to “lose a million pounds” with huge success and an impact well beyond the waist line. Nothing was overlooked from developing a “health focused streetscape” to encouraging restaurateurs to introduce new menus. Above all Mayor Cornett set a personal example. Now the city is not only fitter and leaner, low health care costs and diminishing work place absentee rates have attracted unprecedented investment, unemployment is down to just 4.5% and Oklahoma City boasts the strongest economy of any major metro area in the US.

Such distinctive leadership, speaking out and walking the talk, may not be fashionable in Westminster but it is far from politically naïve. Perhaps there is inevitability about the cautious consensus that infuses almost every “debate” in parliament but the electorate has demonstrated a lively appetite for alternatives in its city favourites. Mavericks run well in mayoral contests, most  recently capturing  city hall in Bristol and neither Johnson nor Livingstone have campaigned as figures of the establishment although they have, for the most part, subsequently governed in prose. 

A younger generation that is disillusioned with mainstream politics apparently identifies with issues, not tribes.  A same old versus same old contest in London in 2016 will not ignite the passions of an electorate that is young, substantially unaligned and increasingly bored by politics if not seriously disaffected.

Speaking out and being the change is right.

And its smart politics.

Pull together

In his international research Dr Benjamin Barber has shown that city leaders, rather than those of smaller municipalities, operate on the right scale to address some of the biggest cross cutting challenges whilst also having the capability to  develop the informal networks and cross boundary collaboration which is too fine grained for nation states.

Our capital boasts an exceptional cast of stakeholders from local community groups to the most prestigious universities, hospitals, theatres and galleries. Its a global financial centre, home to some of the worlds biggest businesses. People from across the planet have gathered here over many generations and newcomers arrive every day, practicing different faiths, speaking different languages. The parts are remarkable but what of the sum?

Our democratic structures may provide for reliable governance that is representative and stable but what of everyday engagement and constant collaboration? How and where do our stakeholders come together, work together and project a shared narrative? Who is pulling together our services, our individual resources, our separate enterprises for the benefit of us all?

The University in Geraldton, Western Australia, worked with city leaders on a programme of “deliberative democracy” supporting “community champions” in the leadership of public meetings through which the city developed its bold and imaginative  “2029 Vision”. This process generated the remarkable target to become “the first  carbon-neutral industrial region in the world”

In Sicily Roberto Visentin, the Mayor of Siracusa, has created the “table for the future” – a multi stakeholder organization devoted first to building social cohesion and then to transforming Siracusa into “a modern European city”. The Table provides for ongoing collaboration on setting a shared vision and on identifying and managing projects where the goals are best achieved by working together. As Park Won-soon has said of Seoul “citizens are the mayor”.

Much of what matters in London isn’t managed by the Mayor but he or she should build the table and should lead the conversation.

Nowhere is this needed more than in the planning and delivery of public services. Currently there is duplication and there are gaps. Patrick Dunleavy has found that participants in Total Place estimated the degree of overlap in local service streams at between 25% and 35% but serious case reviews have repeatedly echoed the 2002 Kenward inquiry’s conclusion that  the death of Ainlee Labonte “could have been avoided” if the agencies involved  “had worked together”. Savings can be made and services can be improved.

Collaborating more effectively and reconfiguring responsibilities would enable individual professionals to spend more time on smaller case loads, bridging the gaps without duplication and developing the deep value relationships which, we know, achieve better results for less money. A convening figure could  bring focus, scale and drive to this agenda with more determination and a new approach.

This isn’t only about the public sector but also service users, families and the voluntary sector. Co-production that is locally appropriate and culturally sensitive can be delivered through a range of methods and models: co-operatives, social enterprises, mutuals, time-banks and informal networks. The only consistent feature of co-production initiatives are the core principles: valuing people as assets; building on their existing capabilities; developing  reciprocity; facilitating rather than delivering.

Services become more effective and relevant when service users and their communities are helping to design and deliver the outcomes. Service-user engagement encourages commitment and ultimately ownership, resulting in genuinely sustainable projects and, of course, more  sustainable outcomes offer better value for money.

A good mayor would establish the forums for the right conversations, help to open up systems and structures,  enable the contribution of others and facilitate collaboration.

More and better collaboration on the use of the public estate in London would help in the delivery of better services and in the development of local social capital. The parent of a primary school child knows how their local network improves through relationships made with other parents and carers at the school gate. Building such networks is not the purpose  of the council office, the library or the police station, but it would result from co location and be a priceless incidental outcome.

Potentially co location would also raise money from letting to external partners and save it not just on maintenance costs but also on front and back office functions.  The LGA have been developing the idea of using special purpose vehicles to lead on the delivery of such plans. This model may not work for everyone but the principle of co location could, with ambitious leadership become the expectation across London not, as it is at the moment, the exception.

A disjointed public estate is the face that government currently presents to most of its citizens in London. Co location is a bricks and mortar proposal with immediate practical benefits but it would also have a wider totemic purpose. It would say these are good quality services run by thoughtful people with respect for you, for the interests of future generations, for the limitations on the public purse and for the convenience and the contribution of the Londoners that we serve.

Think bigger

“Challenging as they are, it’s not the magnitude of our problems that concerns me the most,” said Barack Obama “It’s the smallness of our politics:”

Mayor Ramokgopa in Tshwane wants to make his home city a “model capital for Africa” and Mayor Estrosi is turning Nice into “the most sustainable city in the Mediterranean”.  What might be our promise for London, big enough and bold enough to change lives, to galvanise us all and to become a beacon for the world?

Maybe “London, the world’s premier city for children”? Attacking child poverty would have to be a priority with an irresistible push on the living wage reinforced with incentives or sanctions. A varied package of support involving all the sectors might be developed for children in their early years possibly adapting and adopting Hilary Clintons “Too small to fail” campaign or the Chicago Children’s Zone. The capitals advertising hoardings, particularly near schools and parks need stricter standards and its time that our children reclaimed our residential streets for the outdoor play and social interaction that has almost entirely disappeared from many of our neighborhoods. Residents might apply for designated Playstreets, free from traffic, every weekend. Tourists complain that London restaurants and hotels are less child friendly than those in other major cities. A mayor with a mission could turn around that perception in four years.

Alternatively a good Mayor might determine to lead the world in making London the capital city where mental illness and physical illness are treated the same. Most Londoners will experience mental illness, directly or as carers or friends, at some point in their lives yet most of us understand it very little and talk about it less. Mental health services are the Cinderella’s of the NHS, stigma doubles the burden of the sick,  and prejudice and discrimination, rooted in ignorance but unthinkable in other aspects of our lives, flourishes unchallenged. There would be a part to play for us all. Certainly the health service but also all employers, businesses, media, schools and other public agencies. Attitudes changed and actions begun with sufficient momentum in London would not stop at the M25.

Or perhaps the foremost city for older people? Old age should be enjoyed with security in our later years and opportunities to contribute not one conditioned on the other but side by side for a fulfilling retirement . If we valued and sought to benefit from the accumulated wisdom of our elders, as some societies do but ours does not, we would improve the quality and the length of our active lives and also achieve positive outcomes for the wider community. A good mayor might harness this outstanding resource with a respectful, ambitious and well resourced volunteer programme in our schools, hospitals and neighbourhoods. 

Releasing capital from home ownership is a sensible option for many retirees but too important to be left to the market. Private schemes now offer a poor deal for the owner and minimal incentive. A coordinated effort in London could establish the mayors own scheme for older Londoners. Collaboration across the sectors might also facilitate the development of housing coops for older people sharing the costs of domestic help, home maintenance and even personal care.

And then when the end does come almost everybody would prefer to die at home but most will die in hospital. There are good economic arguments and, as the proportion of older people grows year on year, even stronger political ones for developing a broad and purposeful city wide strategy for end of life care in the community.

Disagree with these specifics by all means, having that debate is part of the purpose, but we need a mayor who thinks bigger, unleashes the power of our imagination and leaves behind the smallness of our politics with a vision for London that engages and stretches us all and pushes at the boundaries of the possible.

A good mayor

Imagining and communicating, convening, collaborating and co producing. These are the powers of influence vested in the London mayor and these are the qualities of leadership we should expect from our candidates.

All my life I have longed for bold leadership on the left. Not shrill, divisive rhetoric but clear sighted, big hearted, practical distinctions from the centre and the right.

Locally and nationally I have worked and voted for the politics of a party that sometimes seemed to care more for focus groups than for the disadvantaged. I have understood why: Without power we can do nothing and the swing voter, the theory goes, abhors the different, the bold or the radical.

I suggest we should challenge that cautious orthodoxy in London in 2016. Here, now, I think we can do better.

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  1. Posted by Frances Clarke

    A mayor that would work to make London, ‘the world’s premier city for children’ would be worth voting for.

    Reply
  2. Posted by Nick

    Love the global ambition of being the best city in the world for children and young people.

    Is part of the challenge also the fact the Mayor is sandwiched between the greater powers of town hall and Whitehall? Would be interesting to understand in some detail the extent to which international comparators operate with different tools and responsibilities

    Reply