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'Elected mayors could benefit from city commissions'

Corinne Swain
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Devolution will require local leaders to provide some tangible demonstration that they are seeking to improve the economic prospects and quality-of-life of all citizens throughout a wider functional area than traditional districts, and not simply to grow the core city economy.

A similar challenge faced Boris Johnson when he became mayor of London in 2008, on the back of a large suburban vote. There had been a perception that the first mayoralty had focused unduly on strengthening the role of central London.

One of Mr Johnson’s first actions was to establish the Outer London Commission to shine a spotlight on the suburbs and to explore policy initiatives that would raise their economic performance. The commission was independent and therefore able to freely express its own ideas and advice.

The idea of such a commission is not new. Indeed, expert groups are often used to prepare the ground on controversial national issues, or for city-focused economic reviews. The Outer London Commission experience is interesting though, because of its broader composition, its profile-raising for the often forgotten suburbs and its direct interaction with policy-making. So what lessons can be learnt from its seven-year existence?

Successful working methods

Unusually commissioners were drawn from amongst local borough leaders, business and property interests, voluntary groups and independent professionals. This enabled multiple perspectives in discussing issues ranging from suburban offices and industrial estates to residential densities and relations with the wider city region.

Essential to the efficient working of the commission was its high-calibre secretariat. These officers from both Greater London Authority’s planning and Transport for London’s strategy staff were highly knowledgeable, but able to distance themselves from their day jobs. The costs of this form of secretariat should not be underestimated.

Recent commissions set up by the government have started their existence with a call for ideas or evidence. But does this approach risk being perceived as ‘milking’ others for information, rather than bringing new thinking to the issue? By contrast, the Outer London Commission both acted as a focal point for new research and spearheaded wider consultative processes. Specifically, it held four rounds of interactive meetings in public in each of the sub-regions within London, generally in the evening, with discussion questions set in advance.

New mayors need early wins. In London, one of these was setting up an Outer London (regeneration) Fund with seedcorn awards of around £1m to 30 town centre projects over three years. The commission was influential in setting the allocation criteria, with an emphasis not just on public realm improvements but also innovation and capacity building, including the establishment of business improvement districts.

Policy influence

In its early stages, the commission fulfilled an agenda-setting role, including trailing the idea of concentrating economic and transport investment in four suburban ‘super-hubs’. Flushing out concerns particularly from the boroughs about the idea of picking winners in this way was useful to the mayor in advance of formulating a new suite of Outer London policies for the London Plan review in 2011. This sounding board role was also used in the final round of the commission’s work to start a conversation on politically sensitive issues such as a more relaxed approach to green belt development.

At other times the commission’s work was lower key, seeking to customise existing policies to different suburban settings. Reaching a consensus on some issues where technical evidence pulled in a slightly different direction from local sensitivities, such as on parking standards, required all the diplomacy skills of the independent chair.

Perhaps the greatest influence of the commission was on town centre policy. This was based on its views that retailing was undergoing a fundamental spatial change, and that most suburban centres and high streets could no longer rely for their success mainly on their retail performance. In particular, commission members brought new perspectives on the implications of multi-channel retail, following quantitative research commissioned by the GLA. They not only sought to raise the profile of business activities and community facilities, but also identified the types of centre where selective, mixed-use renewal led by high-density housing might be possible to accommodate. This, and other work on evaluating strategic options for growth, has paved the way for the preparation of a new London Plan strategy.

Could this experience provide pointers for incoming metro-mayors keen to bind outer urban areas into new city-regional geographies? Regardless of policy influence, independent commissions undoubtedly have publicity value, signifying to the electorate that effort is being invested in improving the status quo.

Corinne Swain, member, and Will McKee, former Outer London Commission. Ms Swain is an Arup fellow. Mr McKee is the director of Newcourt Residential

 

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