More stuff for Labour councils in the North

With the argument about the principle of devolution to cities now seemingly settled, attention has begun to turn to the details of the deals being done. For some – the Guardian and nef amongst them – these do no more than give cities the responsibility for making cuts imposed by central government, and to take the stick that will come with that. The Treasury decides how much (little) is in the wallet: cities how to spend it.  This is devolution as a clever political ploy, a deflecting-the-blame game. To which, the Devo-pushers –  Centre for Cities, Respublica, RSA – need only answer that we have to start somewhere, whilst agreeing that this is only a start.

From a different perspective, some Conservative and county councils are reportedly beginning to ask where this leaves them – why, they say, are all these new powers being granted to Labour councils in the north? According to the LGIU these same Councils are also unhappy with the model of combined authorities that the government is promoting. This was also picked up by a recent Centre for Cities blog which noted the counties v cities tension as a likley stumbling block on the devo-path.

But what devolution model is appropriate outside of, or alongside, the cities? The counties  need to come up with their own ideas, and none has been immediately forthcoming – though the search could spark some very interesting proposals. In Bristol for example strategic planning initiatives are cross national.

All this also has parallels with a research project I’m involved with – ‘Heritage Identity and Place’ with the RSA – where the same question about the role of rural places and countryside has been raised within a project which, at first glance, I can see looks very urban focussed. My answer has been to talk about what I have called the ‘hinterland’ of cities.

As with many of my other ideas, this has been based on Jane Jacobs model of economic  development – not the community planners’ favourite, ‘ Life & Death of the American Street”, but the less well-known ‘The Economy of Cities’. Jacobs simple idea in this book was that any economic unit needs to be understood in terms of what it imports and exports. This applies to a city as much as a state – indeed any social unit from a household, a family a community, to a continent. Growth comes from creating a surplus over what is consumed lcoally, and – initially at least – this comes about through a process of import substitution. Places are sustainable if they are either fully self-sufficient (though that’s risky) or if they at least balance what they import with what they export. And this doesn’t have to be understood in purely market economic terms – self-sufficiency can be social, and outside the market – through networks of family, friends and neighbours.

What do rural places, villages and market towns export? Mainly labour – to cities. Agriculture, still, for sure – though employment is low. Some pioneer digital businesss and still some manufacturing too, but all on a tiny scale compared to cities.  Otherwise – they import – everything from food and retail, to culture and leisure. Put another way – to pay for all this stuff and experience, the inhabitants of rural places have to migrate on a daily basis. Thought of in terms of the income of residents, this does work, and villages populated by people who work in cities are perfectly viable. But the danger comes if so little consumption takes place locally that it leads to dormitory settlements with no retail or cultural offer. And that, in turn, means  those not securing city jobs face a marginal existence, with no work available in fulfilling local economic demand – whether that’s working in a village shop, pub, hair salon, plumber, whatever.

Jacobs thought rural settlements should not be thought of as distinct from their nearest city – even cities – but as having a symbiotic relationship with them. To my mind, that makes the case for city-region strategies that encompass and incorporate the needs of their local hinterland – not just as suppliers of labour, facilitated by efficient transport networks, but as places where the import/export balance needs to be understood, and strategies created for developing rural places that are a source of more products for the city – the ‘exports’ of the County. In many cases, of course, this means returniung to something close to their original economic rationale.

But perhaps most interesting is that this concept could be applied beyond the confines of market goods and services, to encompass the idea of environmental services – things like outdoor recreation, flood protection and carbon sequestration that benefit the city, but only if managed well by the countryside. These green services should  be as much the part of any city’s strategy as plans for redundant iner city sites, local housing and urban greenspace. In time, fiscal freedom for Metros could even, it seems to me, provide the opportunity for much more experimentation with ‘PES’ schemes – payment for ecocsystem services. These are proving fiendishly difficult to establish on a national scale, when being coordinated by a centrist department like Defra, but wil be far  more viable if developed by city regions who know their own fates are bound up with the rural hinterland that surrounds and sustains them.

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