How can we nurture urban transformation?

Dr. Catherine Durose

The complex, rapidly changing, increasingly precarious nature of cities has highlighted the limits of a traditional ‘top down’ master governance plan. How then can we shape and transform cities in order to address the challenges we face as a society, from sustainability to social cohesion?

Rather than attempting to discipline the urban governance environment, academics are increasingly trying to use different ways of thinking about the urban environment in order to work with its messiness, focusing on contingency, emergence and interaction. In our recent research, we have embraced this approach, but sought to develop it by also acknowledging the role of human agency in shaping and nurturing urban transformation.  Our work has given a sustained focus on how different people – those working on the front-line of public services, or in voluntary, community or social enterprise organisations, activists, and residents – can create change in urban neighbourhoods. Our new research places those working for change at the centre of debates on how cities transform.

We conducted a 30 month study in neighbourhoods in Amsterdam, Birmingham, Copenhagen and Glasgow. With local partners, we identified individuals who had a reputation for making a difference. We interviewed and observed them, and created spaces for them to come together to reflect on what they do, how they do it and why it matters. Our research discovered examples of how people made use of and nurtured four common resources:

  • Vision: a set of ideas to bring people together and offers a collective narrative for the future.
  • Relationships: ongoing engagement with a range of different people, often across cultural, economic or organisational boundaries.
  • Different ways of knowing: from professional knowledge to local.
  • Materials: from buildings to human bodies.

Living Lab in Birmingham

Examples included: how a mobile bakery in Amsterdam brought people together to take action, how historic buildings were re-purposed in Glasgow to offer a different future for the neighbourhood, how healthy lifestyle opportunities in Birmingham helped women from under-served communities realise their potential, and how resources were re-used and shared in Copenhagen to build a sustainable neighbourhood food economy. 

Seen together these examples begin to demonstrate a different way of thinking and showing how cities may be transformed:

First, how transformation may come from giving meaning to action and a pathway to a more liveable neighbourhood. 

Second, nurturing rather than extracting resources.

Third, engaging with people as community members to foster a sense of belonging and solidarity.

Finally, recognising and valuing different kinds of knowledge and harnessing them to respond creatively to social problems.

These practices did not begin with, focus upon, or end with those formal institutions that govern a city. Indeed, they often reflected institutional limits. Instead, they were guided by a belief in fostering power in communities towards a shared vision of a different future. 

The understanding of change expressed here, brings together a recognition of the role of people in catalysing urban transformation by bringing together different resources in a way that is purposeful, but also allows for a process of becoming that emerges over time. The work and resources we draw attention to here were often precarious, hidden, unvalued and yet hard to replace. Opportunities to experiment, to nurture, to fail, to reflect were all crucial, but we should acknowledge are also under severe pressure.

Our research brings together the history of different urban neighbourhoods, and their potential, and recognised the actual whilst considering the possible. We hope these insights contribute to ongoing learning and critical imagination in how we can approach the future of cities differently. Our article, ‘Working the urban assemblage: a transnational study of transforming practices’ by Catherine Durose, Mark van Ostaijen, Merlijn van Hulst, Oliver Escobar and Annika Agger has now been published in Urban Studies, and is available open access.

Catherine is Reader in Policy Sciences at INLOGOV, with a specific interest in urban governance and public policy.

Help council commissioning to ‘build back better’

Jason Lowther

Local government is digging deep into its financial reserves and hiking council tax bills by double inflation, but still anticipates making further service cuts in 2021–22. The Public Accounts Committee report earlier this month shows how central government support hasn’t matched Covid-related budget reductions. More positively, at the same time, councils and partners are eyeing the improvements made to commissioning and procurement during the pandemic and asking whether these could help balance the budget. Can adding value to local government’s annual procurement spend of £100bn help improve outcomes for citizens, sustain local councils, and build a better recovery?

As NESTA’s recent report, A Catalyst for Change, evidenced, councils’ collaboration with other public sector bodies, citizens and the voluntary and private sectors was at the centre of the response to COVID-19. Local authorities ‘stepped into their role as conveners, leveraged their existing relationships and partnerships, and forged new ones to dynamically address key issues. This allowed organisations to link up volunteers with vulnerable people, support businesses, deliver food parcels or find temporary accommodation for rough sleepers’.

I’ve heard from some of the council managers on INLOGOV’s teaching programmes of the amazing agility and flexibility councils have been able to develop with partners in areas such as social care and housing. Commissioning and procurement processes that in the past were seen as inflexible, slow, risk-averse, price-obsessed and lacking innovation were transformed rapidly in response to the immediate threats of the pandemic. Data was shared in more depth and quickly, enabling better targeting of services. More flexible financial and performance management arrangements opened the door to flexible service delivery.

Now, a major research programme led by Dr. Richard Simmons at Stirling University, called Optimising Outcomes, is looking at the impact of Covid on partnering and procurement. The programme is working with key sector bodies such as CIPFA and SOLACE as well as universities and research councils, to answer key questions such as:

  • How, and how effectively, are local authorities deploying their commissioning and procurement functions to address the challenges posed by Covid-19? What are the successes to be celebrated? Where are the tensions that need to be managed? Where is the system at risk of breaking down?
  • What are the opportunities for improved procurement performance? How do local authorities optimise every aspect of procurement spend?
  • Can local authorities adopt more innovative, strategic, entrepreneurial and relational approaches to strengthen local resilience and avoid a weak and incapacitated system?
  • What role can greater data-analytic capacity play in supporting a more agile and effective response?

As part of this research, council managers have been invited to take part in a survey to capture learning from the many challenges and achievements of the sector during the last year.  The survey is aimed at all UK council managers (there is a separate survey for procurement teams) and takes around 10 minutes to complete.  The closing date for responses is 21st June.

If you are a UK council manager and haven’t yet taken part, please would you complete the survey here.    

This is a great opportunity to ‘build back better’ by applying the lessons and innovations councils and partners have developed over the last 18 months. I’ll report back on the results later this year.

Source: DHSC website

Jason Lowther is Director of the Institute for Local Government Studies (INLOGOV)

Local authorities and climate change: responding to the green challenge

Jon Bloomfield

What lies ahead for local government in 2021? We know the pandemic will continue to loom large. But all the signs are that with the UK hosting the crucial, international climate change conference (COP26) in Glasgow next November, the issue of climate change will be high on the policy agenda.

Over the last 18 months many towns and cities have responded to the growing environmental emergency and declared their commitment to go carbon-neutral. In early December, 38 local authority leaders committed to cut their own carbon emissions to net zero by 2030. Among the leaders to sign the net zero pledge set out by the NGO UK 100 are the metro mayors of Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, plus council leaders in Birmingham, Bristol and Edinburgh. Together the signatories represent almost a third of the U.K. population. A  Zoom virtual conference saw more than 500 council leaders and officers participating.

The international political climate is favourable. Reversing four decades of Washington neo-liberal consensus, the International Monetary Fund has given its seal of approval to public investment strategies irrespective of the rising debt consequence. The national mood music is positive too. Boris Johnson’s 10 point plan for a Green Industrial Revolution recognised that we need a low carbon transition transforming all sectors in the economy. In the lingering shadow of Trumpist climate denialism, it was reassuring. The really tough question is how to make good on these national and local targets. The words are easy: the action is harder.

What is the best pathway to follow? The green recovery should focus on the exploitation of what we already know can fulfil a low carbon, ‘levelling up’ agenda. Here there are three key policy arenas, energy, mobility and buildings and in all three,  local authorities, their staff, community groups and local neighbourhoods have key roles to play.

Take buildings. The country needs a large-scale programme of state investment in the regions to both reduce emissions and create jobs. The quickest and simplest way to do that is to focus on decarbonising our building and housing stock. Renovation works are labour-intensive, create jobs and the investments are rooted in local supply chains.  Central to green recovery should be programmes where budgets are devolved to enable localities to design initiatives appropriate to their needs, in partnership with local stakeholders. That means looking to develop neighbourhood schemes so that entire streets are renovated together, rather than the government’s current green grants to individual householders. A community approach would bring economies of scale; permit accredited programmes with approved contractors; enable retrofit to be undertaken along with boiler replacements and renewable energy installations; introduce smart, digital appliances; and   on-street vehicle charging infrastructure. In other words, a comprehensive approach that takes citizens with you. Neighbourhood renovation and refurbishment offers lots of new jobs across the whole of the UK, with warmer homes, lower fuel bills and plenty of opportunities across the building supply chain. Plus a chance to engage local people in the revitalisation of their own streets and communities. What’s not to like?

But this all requires council officers to have the understanding and grasp of climate change transitions thinking and with the social and participatory skills to engage with neighbourhood and local groups. Climate change policies cannot be simply imposed from above. A huge social challenge won’t be addressed without some friction and tension. As we have seen with the Low Traffic Neighbourhoods policy over the last few months, if people aren’t engaged, then suddenly vocal resistance to these measures can arise.

Addressing climate change means we shall have to alter the ways that we live, move and work. The issues of climate transition are effectively an emerging policy arena. They require an understanding and marshalling of a new combination of skills amongst a wide cadre of local government officers, councillors and engaged citizens. Planners, traffic engineers, housing officers, finance and procurement staff: these and more all need additional skill-sets. Councils can set ambitious targets. But unless they have the staff within their ranks with the competence and skills to tackle them, then they will fall short.

Jon Bloomfield has been involved with the EU’s Climate KIC programme for over a decade, helping to develop educational and training programmes and experimental projects which help companies, cities and communities to make effective transitions to a low carbon economy.

Councils should make better use of churches to bring communities together

Dr Madeleine Pennington

As if one were needed, Croydon Council’s issue of a section 114 notice in November offered a further stark reminder of the financial challenges facing local authorities. After a decade of austerity, the pandemic is stretching (and will stretch further) councils already running on a shoestring – and one consequence of reduced public spending is a reliance on faith and community groups to plug the gap.

This phenomenon has already led to a quiet shift in the role of faith in society. Faith-based volunteer hours rose by almost 60% from 2010-2014, and in 2015 this time contribution alone was valued at £3 billion. Between 2006 and 2016, faith-based charities were the fastest growing area of the charity sector. Two thirds of the nation’s growing number of foodbanks are now coordinated by the Trussell Trust – a Christian charity whose most recent figures show an 89% increase in need for emergency food parcels in April 2020 compared to April 2019. As of 2017, 93% of Anglican churches alone were involved in foodbanks in some way.

The result is one of the unspoken paradoxes of modern society: faith is increasingly assumed to be private, and yet is becoming ever more public in some very concrete ways.

However, taking churches as a case study, research published last month by Theos think tank observes that councils’ engagement with faith groups has predominantly been driven by necessity rather than positive embrace. Nervousness around proselytism and the inclusivity of faith-based services mean that local authorities tend to work with a few churches they trust, and the level of engagement varies hugely between areas: while some councils were described as “open and willing” in this research, church-based participants in other areas felt “invisible” or viewed with “suspicion”.

At the same time, while churches are increasingly relied upon to provide necessary services, they are far less often included where the wider health and flourishing of their local communities is concerned.

This is particularly problematic given that many of the challenges facing the country (and our local communities) fundamentally go beyond a financial shortfall. The Leave campaign won on an argument that Brexit was about more than economics. So too, the pandemic is more than a public health crisis: it is an act of solidarity for individuals so profoundly to curtail their freedom to protect the most vulnerable in our communities. Likewise, our response to many other critical issues facing our society – racial injustice, loneliness, our willingness to welcome migrants – rests on investing in the strength of our common relationships.

In other words, these are social cohesion challenges – and churches are uniquely placed to meet this relational need. They provide an unrivalled source of physical capital scattered equally throughout the country, acting as the social capillaries of their communities, protecting a wellspring of formal and informal leadership, convening difficult conversations between groups, motivating individual members of their congregations to give to wider society, and seeing (and enacting) the full potential of their communities where others do not. 

Most churches have also reflected deeply on the appropriate role of faith in their community work; having an open conversation about boundaries and expectations here is far preferable to writing off their contribution altogether. But neither should councils assume the “appropriate” role of faith in the community is no role at all; rather, it is churches’ desire to love and serve their neighbours which makes them so well-equipped to serve their communities in the first place.

As budgets are further slashed in the months (and perhaps years) ahead, churches will undoubtedly be called upon even more to bridge the growing chasm between need and capacity. However, if the context of those relationships can move from a reluctant “needs must” basis to one of open and compassionate collaboration, councils may well find that churches have much more to offer than they currently are. Given the steep climb ahead, that is surely a welcome revelation. 

The Church and Social Cohesion was commissioned by the Free Churches Group, and prepared independently by Theos, and published alongside a ‘how to’ booklet for policymakers and local authorities hoping to engage better with churches. Download them here.

Dr Madeleine Pennington is head of research at the Christian thinktank Theos

This article was published in the Local Government Chronicle on 1st December 2020.

Co-production: the ‘give’ and ‘take game…

Catherine Durose 

Co-production is a process aiming to bring together those with different experiences and expertise to address a shared concern, for example about a public policy or service. As part of a recent Fellowship with the Australia and New Zealand School of Government, I ran a session about co-production involving around a hundred civil servants drawn from state and national governments in Australia and New Zealand, and we played a game.

The game involved dividing the group into pairs, and agreeing who is the ‘giver’ and the ‘taker’. The ‘givers’ were asked to hand over an item of personal value to the ‘taker’ and then leave the room. Instructions were then shared with the ‘takers’, who were then told that the ‘givers’ will have one minute to negotiate the return of their item, but that the ‘takers’ should only return it if the ‘giver’ negotiates with the question ‘what will it take to return the item?’. When the ‘givers’ came back into the room, they were just told that they had one minute to get their item back.

The game provoked a lively response, and enthusiastic reactions. Some got their item back, most didn’t. Bribery and emotional blackmail were common. But this was a game with a point.

In discussions about co-production, the positives of greater inclusion, often push out reflection about questions about the politics involved. This can create a challenge when the ideals of co-production come up against the messier realities of practice. By using the ‘give’ and ‘take’ game, students were able to bring the question of power, and of emotion into the room. Our discussions centred on how it felt like to wield power, and to be denied it; who sets the rules of the game, and how these may operate, and to whose exclusion. Also, how people felt: frustration and discomfort were in evidence.

I first encountered this game through Jez Hall, one of my co-researchers as part of an event run as part of the Jam and Justice: co-producing urban governance project. Jez’s point in using the game, made more widely through our research, is that we need to humanise the process of co-production.

When citizens and public officials engage in co-production, the process does not begin with a blank sheet, it is coloured by prior experiences, and by dynamics of power. It is also a human contact sport, with emotional highs and lows. Yet, these aspects of the experience are often cleansed from accounts of co-production. Instead, we need to recognise and discuss what prior experiences people bring with their participation, make power visible and give space for the expression of a range of emotions. Doing so, will allow people to build relationships with each other and credible commitment to the process.

If co-production is going to have the transformative impact many claim for it, power needs to be made visible and we need to give space to emotion.

 

Catherine Durose is a Reader in Policy Sciences at the Institute of Local Government Studies and recent Director of Research and Knowledge Exchange for the School of Government at the University of Birmingham. Catherine is a leading expert on urban governance and public policy, interested in questions of how we initiate and facilitate inclusive decision-making and social change in urban contexts. She has sought to address this question in her research, with particular focus on issues such as intermediation, participation, decentralisation and democratic innovation.

Co-production in urban governance: why, when, with who, where and how?

Catherine Durose

Debates on the future of governance are shaped by a growing recognition that no single actor has the expertise to address complex problems. This acknowledgement has in part inspired the growing scope of participation in public policy making and governance. The argument here is that government cannot govern alone as effectively as it could in collaboration with citizens. It in this context that interest in co-production has surged.

We can understand co-production as a process bringing together different forms of expertise and experience from different groups, such as public officials and citizens. For seminal thinkers, such as Nobel Prize Winner, Elinor Ostrom, co-production was a response to not only some of the myths around efficiency perpetuated through new public management. But also a call to arms to focus on the synergies that may be forged by working across traditional boundaries, rather than being paralysed by them.

The appeal of co-production is now wide-reaching, but it is a term that is often conceptually stretched. Discussing why, when, how, where and with who to co-produce was the focus of sessions with a group of a hundred civil servants drawn from state and national governments in Australia and New Zealand, during a recent Fellowship at the Australia and New Zealand School of Government.

Using insights from research I have been involved with as part of the Jam and Justice: co-producing urban governance project, we debated the following insights:

  • Why co-produce?

We should not engage in co-production unless it helps us to advance our core values, for example, effectiveness, justice or legitimacy of public policy.

  • When to co-produce?

Co-production isn’t universally advantageous, we shouldn’t co-produce everything. But co-production is a useful tool, particularly when problems are complex and defy traditional solutions, where the conditions and solutions are not clear or are contested.

  • With who to co-produce?

Co-production isn’t about engaging for the sake of it, but rather engaging those with a stake in it.

  • How to co-produce?

Co-production is a necessarily intensive process that demands an investment of time and effort into building relationships between those involved, in order to find common purpose.

  • Where to co-produce?

Co-production works best when it can be locally tailored. Spreading co-production isn’t about scaling up, but scaling out.

Co-production can help to opening up policy-making and governance process, creating synergies and seeding change. The promise of co-production is seductive, but there’s no quick fix here.

 

Catherine Durose is a Reader in Policy Sciences at the Institute of Local Government Studies and recent Director of Research and Knowledge Exchange for the School of Government at the University of Birmingham. Catherine is a leading expert on urban governance and public policy, interested in questions of how we initiate and facilitate inclusive decision-making and social change in urban contexts. She has sought to address this question in her research, with particular focus on issues such as intermediation, participation, decentralisation and democratic innovation.