On 8 October, Robin Hambleton (author of the new Cities and Communities Beyond COVID-19: How Local Leadership Can Change Our Future for the Better) and Marvin Rees (Mayor of Bristol) joined Sheila Foster (Professor of Urban Law and Policy at Georgetown University) to discuss how cities and communities can lead the way in developing a more inclusive post COVID-19 future for us all. There were more audience questions submitted than could be answered at the event, so Robin and Marvin have responded to them here.

Q. What makes a good civic leader and who would you put at the top of your list?

Robin Hambleton: A good civic leader adopts a collaborative, inclusive style. They listen well, make an emotional connection with people, have core values that they want to see advanced, have a vision, work very hard and are willing to take tough decisions… and, oh yes, they have a sense of humour.

Two examples of fine civic leaders mentioned in my book are: Jo Ann Hardesty, one of the Commissioners running the City of Portland, Oregon; and Martin Horn, Mayor of Freiburg, Germany.

Q. I think the philanthropic sector is very problematic. Most philanthropists are high rate taxpayers so a significant proportion of their donation actually comes from the taxpayer (as much as 45% in UK). Yet the taxpayer may have little say in how these funds are used, as philanthropists are unelected and unaccountable. The tax system needs reform.

Robin Hambleton: This is a very good point. Philanthropists are more influential in the US than they are in Europe. We can see why a cash-strapped city in a declining region within the US would welcome financial support from a philanthropist. The concern raised can, perhaps, be mitigated if cities co-design spending and investment plans with the donor to ensure funds are targeted on public priorities. Philanthropy can, then, make a contribution to COVID-19 recovery. But the scale and nature of the problems now facing modern societies require much bolder intervention by the state in the coming period. Significant spending by the state is needed if we are to recover from COVID-19, address the global climate emergency and reduce social, economic and racial inequality.

Q. What will be the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on local climate change actions? How can we make sure that we tackle both crises in a coordinated and integrated way?

Robin Hambleton: This topic was, to some extent, addressed in the conversation. Several of the examples of innovative cities referred to in my book are tackling COVID-19 and climate change at one-and-the-same-time. For example, Copenhagen, already a world leader in responding to the climate emergency, is continuing to expand cycle networks in the city. This has environmental as well as health benefits – cycling incurs less risk of infection and it also helps to reduce obesity levels in the population, a core risk factor in relation to COVID-19.

Q. Communities have the solutions. How can cities, such as Bristol, enable communities to take up their role in delivering the solutions, particularly in regard to recreating their living, working and social environments and how those aspects relate to each other?

Robin Hambleton: This is a complex question. In Chapter 5 of my book I provide an account of the way the Bristol ‘One City Approach’ emerged and developed. This inclusive approach has widened the number of civic actors directly involved in the governance of the city – through, for example, regular City Gatherings – and this way of working has generated novel solutions to many pressing challenges. In 2019 the Bristol ‘One City Approach’ was praised by the European Union and the city was recognised as having one of the six most innovative forms of governance in Europe (European iCapital). Having said that there is more to do. For example, it would be good if the One City Approach could be extended to different neighbourhoods within the city.

Q. How would you communicate content to advance SDG 11 (Safe, Resilient and Sustainable Cities) for content in books for children within the age range of 6-12? What would you emphasize?

Robin Hambleton: Clearly the language used is going to be important. Some of the words used to describe SDGs can be a bit off putting, even for adults! For example, the words ‘sustainable’ and ‘resilient’ both have multiple meanings. Personally, for 6-12 year olds I would suggest talking about ‘global goals’ (not SDGs as such), explain that there are 17 goals for the whole world and that Number 11 is about making cities better to live in. In particular, it could be good to talk about the importance of housing (somewhere that’s ok to live in), green spaces (to play in and relax in), footpaths, cycle paths and public transport (to make it easy for people to get around the city) and jobs for people. I wonder if the UN has developed any suggestions on ways of teaching children about the SDGs… The UN website might be worth a look.

Marvin Rees: While not literature, the Global Goals Centre project is working to create an immersive Education and Visitor Centre experience, bringing the goals to life for children to understand.

Q. With so many different issues, stakeholders and expectations, where / how does a civic leader start?

Robin Hambleton: The challenges facing civic leaders are, indeed, complex and daunting. And different kinds of civic leader will have different resources that they can draw on. It is, for sure, impossible to address all the challenges at once. Good civic leaders are able to keep an eye on (or scan) the whole picture and, in the light of that assessment, identify in consultation with relevant stakeholders some top priorities for early action. If specific topics can be identified and tackled that can be very important in boosting morale as people can be energised when they see that their efforts are making a difference.

Here’s an example. In Bristol the One City Approach involves City Gatherings (which can involve over 300 people). These are good at helping civic leaders see the big picture. Each January the City Gathering identifies three top priorities for the coming year. Collaborative teams are then set up to tackle those priorities, and that is when real progress can be made.

Q. We know that there is a huge inequality within Bristol, with some of the wards being amongst the highest areas of multiple deprivation nationally. Marvin has acknowledged that this imbalance needs to be addressed in order to start on an even foot to address the other big three challenges that Robin has talked about. I wonder what plans BCC have to address this social economic disparity on a local level in the wake of Covid? Are those communities at the heart of those plans?

Marvin Rees: The COVID-19 pandemic has been seen major changes and upheaval, at an unprecedented speed, across every level of our lives. The impact has touched every corner of the city, from health and family, education and skills, culture and society, our city’s places and the environment, to our economy, businesses, investment and jobs. We know that much of the impact has hardest hit people who were already struggling, those already disadvantaged by the systemic, entrenched inequality in our society.

This Friday (16 October) we will launch the first city-wide economic recovery plan which will look at how we can move the economy forward which has been so severely impacted by COVID-19. This One City Economic Recovery and Renewal strategy has been produced with input from a wide range of institutions, organisations and individuals in Bristol, and begins to set out our priorities for recovering and renewing the city’s economy. While its scope is economic, its aims are broad, and it contains a detailed analysis of the impact to date on our people, our businesses and our places, as well as setting out priorities which will later form a comprehensive action plan for the city.

If people are interested they can attend here: https://www.ideasfestival.co.uk/events/bristol-one-city/

Q. The unaffordability, insecurity and discrimination of the private rented sector is putting people at risk of homelessness (and increasingly so during the pandemic). Here in Bristol, the cost of rent is disproportionate in relation to wages and housing benefit levels. Surely, we all need to come together to consider rent control(s) and further protections locally, and lobby national government where we don’t have local power to roll out these greatly needed measures?

Robin Hambleton: I agree with the premise of this question. Here in the UK we have been living with an ongoing housing crisis for at least ten years. Solutions will require action at national level and local level. At the national level it is clear that the Government either does not understand the challenge or chooses to ignore it. The Government White Paper – Planning for the future (August 2020) – will destroy the current planning system and needs to be stopped. There is no evidence suggesting that the planning system is holding up the provision of affordable housing. The housing crisis is caused by the failure by the Government to fund social housing provision and by the land banking practices of major housing developers (who are sitting on large areas of land with planning permission for housing).

In my book I refer to Freiburg, Germany. Here the elected local authorities decide housing policy and, in the Freiburg case, Mayor Martin Horn has decided that future housing development in the city must ensure that 50% of the housing units are genuinely affordable. This is a good example of place-based power being used to produce sound policies.

At the local level there is, of course, scope for innovation, even within the constraints imposed by Whitehall. In Bristol we are fortunate to have the Bristol Housing Festival – this works to incubate and pilot new ideas to deliver affordable housing – and several schemes are underway in the city.

Q. How can we re-think our infrastructure in historic cities such as Bath, that falls under extra regulations as an UNESCO world heritage site?

Robin Hambleton: I am afraid I am not familiar with the UNESCO regulations. I imagine they are very strict in relation to the protection and appearance of buildings in the city. But there could still be room for considering whether the public spaces, roads and pathways in the city can be re-designed to make them more people friendly – for example, reclaiming road space for pedestrians and/or cycle routes

Q. How do we use education to enable change, and use change to enable education to modernise?

Robin Hambleton: At the school level there are opportunities (and I imagine this is already happening across the city) to use the urban environment as a resource for learning and idea development. A good book on how schools can use the place where a school is located to improve education is Kathryn Riley (2013) ‘Leadership of place. Stories from schools in the US, UK and South Africa’.

At the university level there are substantial opportunities for strengthening university and student engagement in problem solving for and with the city. We are fortunate in Bristol to have two highly respected universities and they are both active in supporting the Bristol One City Approach. A good example of this collaboration is provided by the Bristol Forum, held in March 2019.

Q. Thinking about the layers of governance in cities – e.g. Bristol the city council and elected mayor, West of England Combined Authority and metro mayor, the Local Enterprise Partnership, and now the Western Gateway – how are these arrangements an advantage and maybe a challenge beyond this crisis?

Robin Hambleton: Taking England as a whole we have, over a period of more than twenty years, managed to create a very confusing system of local government, to the point where citizens are no longer clear who has responsibility for what. As well as eroding citizen trust in government, these unsatisfactory arrangements also weaken the performance of the governance units that we do have. In my book I suggest that we need an independent constitutional convention in the UK – to examine the current system of local governance, to consider the way powers have been removed over the years from localities, and to set out bold proposals to rebalance the local/central power structure of the country.

My own research suggests that the UK has, in contrast to most other western democracies, become a super-centralised state with far too much power now being exercised by distant figures in Westminster and Whitehall. These figures lack local knowledge and understanding and this impairs governmental performance in our country.

Q. Do you think an SDG Act would accelerate the behavioural changes needed to address the challenges of health, economy, climate change and inequality mentioned by Robin at the start of the webinar?

Robin Hambleton: Agreed by the United Nations in 2015 the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a good framework for achieving a better and more sustainable future for all. However, as this questioner implies, with some notable exceptions, most countries are not making adequate progress in delivering these goals. It follows that steps must be taken to formalise central government commitment. One way of doing this would be to introduce UK-wide legislation requiring progress to be made.

Book cover of Cities and Communities Beyond Covid-19

Robin Hambleton’s book Cities and Communities Beyond COVID-19: How Local Leadership Can Change Our Future for the Better is published by Bristol University Press. Buy a copy from our friends at Waterstones.

Re-watch the event/

If you missed the event, or would like to watch it again, you can view it on our Crowdcast page.

Share this/