The importance of Cities

More than once yesterday I sat in the UN building in New York and thought of the similarities between what we were discussing on a global basis and the reality of the challenges that we face in a daily basis back home in the Liverpool City Region.

Our Focus yesterday was twofold:

Firstly to ensure that local government was placed firmly at the heart of UN policy and activity. We were very much helped in this regard by the fact that Joan Clos the UN official who is in charge of the HABITAT programmes is a former Mayor of Barcelona.

This discussion was itself in two parts. Firstly, we looked at what local government could do. I have no doubt that at its best local government can work in the “parts other bits of government cannot reach”. International as well as national experience is that central government programmes to deal with poverty, illiteracy, poor health and poor sanitation rapidly become tied up in bureaucracy, inertia, lose focus and in some parts of the world become corrupt. The fact is that it is only on the spot that programmes can be fine tuned to meet local needs in a simple and cost effective way. The fact is that councils and their Councillors know their patches well. Their strong local leadership really makes a difference.

Secondly with regard to local government we looked at the capacity of local government to deal with intense problems. In most parts of the world local government is underfunded. In England we have been the subject of a cortical congress report which says that the Government passes obligations onto councils but not the wherewithal to carry out those functions. Those problems can be compounded in many ways by national legislation and practice. In Mexico for example Mayors and Councillors must stand down after three years. In Uganda there is an 80% turnover every four years when local elections take place. So we spent time talking to Mr Clos about how the international institutions of local government could work together to expand capacity and provide practical support to colleagues in the developing world.

The second main area of discussions as about the role of cities. In the 80s the UN programmes and many national governments assumed that if you did the right things in rural areas you could stem the flow of people migrating from rural to urban. Not so! In fact during the 15 year period covered by Habitat I the population of cities grew by 1.8 billion and the population of rural areas declined by 300 million.

Put simply cities are the powerhouse of growth throughout the world. This was. Vividly explained by the representatives of Bogota and São Paulo birth of whom represented 20 million people – the population of Scotland, Northern England, NW England and Yorkshire and the Humber put together.

If we plan our cities right they can be great places to live. If we don’t they can be places where vast numbers of people live in festering slums, barrios and favelas.

We concluded, where many national governments including our own do not that special emphasis needed to be placed on city development AND the relationship that those cities have with the countryside around them.

As a place the UN is rather uninspiring. Built in the 60s it is showing it’s aged and is fading and creaking like the deck access blocks in Netherley before we pulled them down.

Today back to work in the UN building. Having talked to the boss we will be spending the day talking with his staff and our international partners and I will be showing the excellent presentation of Liverpool that the council prepared for me.

Another exciting instalment tomorrow!

About richardkemp

Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool. Deputy Chair and Lib Dem Spokesperson on the LGA Community Wellbeing Board. Married to the lovely Cllr Erica Kemp CBE with three children and four grandchildren.
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