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British government explores new ideas
to strengthen sustainable communities
By Brian Baker
12 February 2005: A fresh initiative to encourage English cities to consider introducing an executive mayor structure was announced at the British Government’s Sustainable Communities summit in Manchester at the beginning of February 2005. The conference also heard from Chicago Mayor Richard Daley who emphasized the importance of schools in creating healthy neighbourhoods and London Mayor Ken Livingstone who spoke of the need to build affordable housing for key workers.
The British Government and local authorities will consider proposals to create more mayors with more powers to transform cities. They will be part of a package of strengthening the role of councils in leading their areas and of individual councillors as the leaders and advocates of their neighbourhoods and communities.
At the summit, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who has been a skeptic about elected mayors, spoke about the ideas during a panel discussion, which also featured Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, one of the keynote speakers.
Whilst emphasising that any model of local governance can only achieve improvement if leaders secure community cohesion, the Deputy Prime Minister said that executive mayors might be one way to go and have a role in cities of over 250,000 population. “Both systems (mayor and state) can provide an enabling framework," he added.
After seven of the first 11 elected mayors in England turned out to be independents the Government and the ruling Labour Party soft-pedalled on the reform.
Chicago Mayor Daley emphasised the importance of local schools in creating healthy neighbourhoods. In Chicago he took the decision to ask the electorate to allow him to take overall responsibility for the city’s schools from the school districts. “The local school is the single most important factor in a neighbourhood. Almost all the problems in big cities have their roots in the failure of the education system. We have now raised the level of ours to the national average,” the Mayor said.
Chicago has supported the educational emphasis by building or remodelling 44 local libraries in the last ten years. eight are opening this year.
Mr Daley also emphasised city beautification in his speech to almost 2,000 delegates. “ We have planted 400,000 trees since l became mayor and are a pioneer in the use of rooftop gardens. Over 100 of these are now constructed or planned. They have a good psychological effect. Trees and flowers and amenities soften cities.”
“Sustainable communities cannot be built by Government alone,” the Chicago Mayor said. “ As mayor l engage in constant persuasion. But a city that neglects streets and infrastructure does so at its peril.”
Mr Prescott said that during the UK’s Presidency of the EU in the second half of 2005 the Government would promote a Europe wide framework for creating places where people want to live. “ This would be especially beneficial for cities in Eastern Europe.”
The newly established Academy for Sustainable Communities, to be based in Leeds, will be intervening in developing the integrated skills needed to built and support sustainable communities. It will have an international role as a centre of excellence. “It will have a strong European outlook and will work closely with the Congress of New Urbanism in the United States,” Mr Prescott said.
Former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, now President of the Congress for New Urbanism, told delegates that the problem with the wow factor was that too much is put on it. “Across the US, cities are building Convention Centres and Stadiums to overcome decline. The real way to do that is to build mixed use neighbourhoods,” he explained.
London Mayor Ken Livingstone joined with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and national regeneration agency English Partnerships at the summit to promote a key-workers housing initiative based on achieving a construction cost of £60,000 (US$110,000) for a new town house for families using off-site construction. A demonstration home built for that sum was exhibited at the event.
English Partnerships has made 15 sites available for up to 4,000 homes in London on this basis. Some will be sold to key worker first time buyers leasehold at the construction price with the public sector retaining land ownership. Mayor Livingstone intends to use sites in London Development Agency and Transport for London ownership which would otherwise be sold off to provide a similar number of new homes.
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