The UK’s cities of the future should be “self-made”, with citizens being enabled to help generate their own vision of urban living and to elect non-partisan leaders who can deliver it, urges a new Policy Commission report.

The University of Birmingham’s Future Urban Living Policy Commission report (PDF - 550Mb), unveiled today (7 July) in the House of Lords, says a democratic overhaul is necessary to bring about the kinds of cities in which people want to live. This would require “meaningful powers devolved from Westminster”, a “radical upgrade” in the role of planners and a system that creates “inspirational leadership” aligned to the city vision rather than political party tendencies.

The Policy Commission – which consulted a wide range of experts and practitioners from across the UK and Europe on how future cities might best accommodate and support changing populations, as well as become “more sustainable and resilient” – concluded that ordinary people need empowering to play a major role in their own “city narrative” and be instrumental in delivering it.

“Our report emphasises our concern that ‘in order to achieve liveable cities of the future, we need to make radical changes in our planning, governance and indeed our thinking of what city life should be’,” says the Policy Commission’s Chair, Lord Shipley, who is a government adviser on cities.

Empowering citizens to join forces with local government and other stakeholders to create a “city narrative” that describes the city’s history, its present context within the UK and its visions for the long-term future is the first of six recommendations for change made by the Commission (see below for the full list).

“The need to empower people to influence the development of their towns and cities was the strongest theme of all to emerge from the evidence,” says the report. “Giving the community ownership and responsibility, in partnership with city leaders, is the basis of the concept of a ‘self-made city’.”

“What we don’t have at the moment is citizens feeling that they have a strong enough say in the way their cities are run – or even that their views are being well-represented by the people who are charged with doing that,” says the Commission’s Academic Lead, Professor Chris Rogers.  

“What the Commission found is that there needs to be a different process of democracy: turning it around so that you have individuals and communities engaged in creating a vision for their city and then voting for leadership that will deliver that vision.”

This will allow for “exceptional leadership” to be “fostered wherever it is found”, which is “not expected to reside solely in local government or, indeed, solely in local business”.

The Commission recommends that such leadership “would be best achieved via either mayors or leadership groups elected on the basis of an ability to deliver the City Narrative”.

Prof Rogers adds: “Obviously there would be some degree of national constraint; a City Narrative has to fit within the context of the UK and the context of the world, and work in harmony with that, but a city should have its own vision of what it wants to be.”

Another recommendation is that future cities need financial and business models that allow them to experiment and invest for the long term. 

The report also advocates a strong need for a radical change in the role of planners “to promote creative, long-term thinking on urban sustainability and resilience”. 

Planners need to “act as integrators, drawing in community involvement as well as the full range of urban practitioners to collaborate in creating this Narrative....To do this effectively, city planning departments will need greater skills  and capacity, and the creative talent once prevalent in city planning departments needs to be attracted back.

“Planners should increasingly be considered as part of the city management team, proactively seeking to improve the public realm and not just be engaged in a regulatory process. As such, planners of the future should become powerful enablers of resilient cities that unlock the potential for a more sustainable future, a common feature of the visions of cities given in the evidence.”

This initiative would take the form of a collection of city partnerships – or forums – bringing together community, academic and business interests, facilitated by city officers and acting independently of political parties, thus leading to greater stability and a situation more attractive to investors, says the Commission’s report.

It adds that cities need to be allowed to retain more of the taxes they raise; they need “budget certainty” in order to plan far ahead, and there needs to be incentive for cities to work with the financial institutions and big corporations, “which should be doing more to invest in cities”.


For more information contact Deborah Walker, Head of Communications, University of Birmingham on +44 (0)121 414 6681. For out of hours enquiries please call +44 (0)7789921165 or email the press office.

  • The University of Birmingham Policy Commission Future Urban Living is being launched today (7 July 2014) in the House of Lords. Read the full report (PDF - 550Mb)
  • The University of Birmingham Policy Commissions were established in 2010 with the aim of bringing together leading figures from the public, private and third sectors with Birmingham academics, in order to generate new thinking on contemporary issues of global, national and civic concern 
  • Professor Chris Rogers is Professor of Geotechnical Engineering at the University of Birmingham and Director of the Birmingham Centre for Resilience Research and Education
  • John Warren Shipley, Baron Shipley, OBE, is a Liberal Democrat who was made a Life Peer in 2010

Taking all of the evidence together, the Commissioners advocate the following six recommendations for change:

  1. Citizens should be empowered to combine with those who govern and other city stakeholders to create a City Narrative that describes their city’s history, its present context and its visions for the (far) future, via a transparently democratic process that delivers consensus across all sections of the community.
  2. Citizens should be empowered to be instrumental in delivering this City Narrative, and be entrusted to do so.
  3. There is a need for a system that creates inspirational local leadership, and this would best be achieved via either mayors or leadership groups elected on the basis of an ability to deliver the City Narrative.
  4. Local government leaders in turn need to be empowered by the triple devices of a balanced degree of devolution of power from national government, an ability to raise finances locally and structures that enable effective cooperation with organisations beyond its boundaries (regional, national and global).
  5. Cities need financial and business models that allow them to experiment, enable them to invest for the long-term, and facilitate the capture of economic, social and environmental returns on investment.
  6. There should be a radical upgrade in the role of planners to promote creative, long-term, thinking on urban sustainability and resilience, and to enable more organic growth within that strategic framework. In this role, planners should act as integrators of urban practitioners and other urban stakeholders.