How can UK government tiers interact most usefully for economic recovery? What support do local authorities need from national government to adapt to the new normal? And what might out city centres look like when the dust settles?
FoL Executive Director Lisa Taylor asked Barbara Brownlee, City of Westminster Executive Director of Growth, Planning & Housing and LSE Professor Tony Travers for their perspectives in this compelling first episode of FoL’s Learning from Crisis “Connections” series.
- Treasury needs councils to avoid financial crisis, partly for economic recovery but also because local authorities are best placed for testing and managing all aspects of Covid response and relationships on the ground. Further, as Brownlee pointed out, being forced into a Section 114 budget-balancing exercise by these extraordinary Covid-19 costs would mean harsh cuts and no room for flexibility or collaboration. Despite increasing bluster, Travers believes we can expect MHCLG to do its best to help keep boroughs afloat.
- Watch for councils, property companies and partners to start referring to all that vacant office space as “new” commercial or mixed-use space (Travers credits Arup’s Alex Jan with this reframing). Where landlords are amenable and planning authorities can flex, this could be a great way to bring fresh energy to town and city centres as smaller/ newer/ consortium organisations start to afford cheaper floor space.
- Brownlee does represent a central London authority, but both make the case for not abandoning central cities (in the UK or elsewhere) in favour of sprawl. They also point out that large, historic landlords in city centres, like London’s Great Estates, have the patience – and patient capital – to make sound decisions, “viewing this as a 200-year thing, rather than a 20-month thing”.
- In economic terms, both are particularly worried about the huge hole in Transport for London and commuter rail revenues – and the impact of that on investment – and about the terrible losses in the cultural sector, for livelihoods, businesses, footfall and export value.
- Local authorities have limited powers to take direct action like policing risky queues or offering business rates relief, but they do have unique leveraging powers; watch for – or seek – more of this from them.
- Both are convinced we will never go back to business as usual in terms of how we work, with Brownlee citing much more direct working on rough sleeping issues, and “100%” certainty that council staff and committees will stay at least partly remote and be as or more efficient than in the past.
Catch up on all past episodes on the City Bites page.
Get involved in FoL’s Covid-19 response and recovery programme: Learning from Crisis.