Enhancing the power of place

25 March 2021

Decisions affecting the lives of people should be made where those people live – Robin Hambleton, emeritus professor of city leadership, calls for a political system that brings place and power closer together. City governments should have a greater say, he argues in this opinion piece, written for Eurocities.

Every now and again it is helpful for all those involved in city governance, inside and outside the state, to step back from the urgent tasks of day-to-day management and public service delivery and examine the broader context.

This is a tough ask when so many city services are under such intolerable strain. The truly awful pressures imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic are, without doubt, stretching international, national and local governance systems to the limit.

Even so, it is worth recalling the old saying: ‘You can’t see the wood for the trees’. Whilst there are variations in different languages, the English 16th Century version warns us that, by focusing too much on detail, we might lose perspective and miss what really matters.

What’s important just now is that the power of place in the modern world is being eroded big time.

In a previous post, I explained how the processes of globalisation have, over the last thirty years or so, taken power away from cities and localities and handed it to placeless decision makers who are, at root, unconcerned about the impacts of their actions on communities living in particular localities.

In a new book, I have, by drawing on some of the most innovative cities in the world, identified three reasons why place needs to be given a significant boost in public policy making.

Place has meaning

First, place matters. To claim that place is significant could seem to be an odd, even out-of-touch, way of viewing the modern world. Some may feel that, because the internet and mobile phone technologies have transformed our abilities to communicate across space – not to mention the way globalization has altered economic and social relations across the entire planet – talking about the importance of place is to swim against the tide.

They would be wrong. The Covid-19 pandemic has reminded us that much of life remains, and will always remain, stubbornly place-dependent. Place forms an important part of our identity as human beings, it contributes to our sense of belonging. To argue for recognising the significance of place for our psychological wellbeing is not to contest the value of personal connections made digitally across space.

The democratic power of place

Second, place provides the spatial units for the exercise of democracy. Elected local authorities provide the democratic building blocks that underpin nation states and, ultimately, international democratic institutions.

Adopting an international perspective enables us to recognise that those nations that super-centralise power are poor performers when compared to those that respect and value local democracy.

A comparison of the way Germany and the UK have responded to the Covid-19 challenge illustrates the point.

The UK has pursued a super-centralised approach to dealing with the pandemic. The Conservative Government has, for example, disregarded elected local authorities and local public health directors and handed out enormous multi-million pound contracts to distant private sector companies.

Just one of these – the privatised test and trace programme – is costing £37 billion (€43 billion) over two years. A report, published on 10 March by the all-party Public Accounts Committee of the UK House of Commons, concluded that “there is still no clear evidence to judge the test and trace system’s overall effectiveness”.

Germany has opted for a more decentralised approach, one that respects the contribution of elected local councils.

In the UK the Covid-19 death rate, at 1,855 per million people, is more than twice the death rate in Germany (904). These figures, from end of March, reveal a startling and unacceptable gap in performance.

Various factors explain why Germany is continuing to be far more successful than the UK in saving lives – the country was better prepared, has a better resourced health care system, and was quick to introduce an effective, localised Covid-19 test and trace system.

Crucially, Germany has the advantage of a decentralised power system. Cities and local authorities have the constitutional right to do things differently and this authorises elected local councils to co-create all kinds of imaginative solutions.

The existence of substantial local power has enabled local leaders to act swiftly and in close collaboration with other civic actors and, in my book, I present the City of Freiburg as an imaginative example.

Place-based leadership: Bristol’s One City approach

A third argument for valuing place is that places are different and local leaders understand these differences. Enlightened public leadership is, at root, collaborative. It stems from the direct experience of local actors listening to each other, sharing knowledge and understandings, and co-creating new solutions.

There are, of course, many ways to lead and govern a city. This Eurocities website is a valuable resource not least because it provides a space for sharing the practical achievements of many European civic leaders.

Allow me to add one to the collection. In the last five years Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol, together with councillors and local civic leaders, has developed a One City approach to place-based leadership of the city.

This innovative way of working has energised civic leaders in the city to co-create a far-reaching, thirty-year One City Plan. This visionary plan, which was updated earlier this month, aims to co-create a fair, healthy and sustainable city. In an important innovation all the actions set out in the plan have been mapped against the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals.

One of the most innovative features of the Bristol One City approach is the development of a range of place-based leadership development programmes. Launched in 2017, Stepping Up is an award-winning example.

This programme is designed to encourage and support black and minority ethnic people, and other groups that have been held back by discrimination, to progress in their careers. Led by Councillor Asher Craig, Deputy Mayor of Bristol, this new programme has already enhanced the influence of voices that have been excluded from the governance of Bristol in the past.

Bristol is not the only European city advancing the cause of collaborative local governance. Across Europe, and across the world, we can see that local activists and civic leaders living in particular communities and localities have responded to the Covid-19 emergency with great care and compassion.

The Cities Social Summit, to be held on 6 May, provides an opportunity to explain the importance of taking on placeless power and reasserting the importance of listening to the voices of local leaders, not placeless actors who are distant from cities and communities.

In addition, national and EU leaders could, perhaps, learn something about the value of  collaborative leadership by listening to the experiences of European city leaders.

Robin Hambleton’s new book is ‘Cities and Communities Beyond Covid-19. How local leadership can change our future for the better’, Bristol University Press.

Image: University of Bristol © Bristol Design


Robin Hambleton Emeritus Professor of City Leadership, University of the West of England, Bristol