1. Governance
February 9, 2015

What “underbounding” means – and why you should care about it

By Richard Blyth

Cities are on the up. More and more people want to live in them; innovation and economic growth are increasingly emanating them. So is designer coffee, come to that.

Cities aren’t just getting bigger; they’re getting more competitive. Countries aren’t where it’s at any more: cities from different continents are competing directly with one another. If this were the Olympic Games, you could forget the country parade at the start, it’s every athlete for herself.

So is it all about cities now then, is it? Well, no. Although cities may be wonderful places, they’re dependent for many things on the areas round them: open space for recreation, housing for workers who travel in from outlying suburbs or commuter towns, office space for businesses which want to locate outside the city but within easy reach. And above all, cities need space to grow.

That’s because, all over the world, the way cities are run has not kept pace with this brave new world. In particular, in many countries, cites are underbounded: a technical term which translates as “having a boundary too close in”. What this means is that, in many parts of the world, the areas around cities are governed by independent organisations.

The OECD has published a list of what it really takes for a city to be successful these days. One of their key abilities is “governance for functional geographies”: in other words, those which are most successful are those which have worked out how to cooperate with their immediate neighbouring.

In England and Wales this no less necessary than anywhere else. Many of our cities are underbounded, included those with the best prospects for substantial future job growth. These maps put together by Matthew Spry, of the planning consultancy Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners expresses the problem graphically. The grey is the built up area, which, in many cities, runs right up to the boundary. Much of the green space is flood plain.

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In a report out last month the Royal Town Planning Institute looked at planning for housing, jobs and transport and the environment over areas wider than a single council – a process we call strategic planning. The report looked at 14 case studies in the UK, Ireland, France and Australia: cities which had in different ways got to grips with this challenge.

Here’s what we found that cities should be focusing on:

  • Setting agendas so that all parts of a wider area – especially the outer areas – stand to gain from cooperation;
  • Letting areas – such as counties and city regions – devise their own means of cooperation;
  • Making sure the cooperation arrangements  cover a wide range of activities – not just housing, but also jobs and transport;
  • Getting strong buy in from local politicians  and businesses;
  • Making sure you look beyond the edge of the area over which you’re cooperating.

In England we haven’t always got this balance right. Some governments have enforced co-operation, others seemed unbothered as to whether it happens much at all – to the detriment of housing supply.

Government could help this process along by rewarding the hard work on getting joint plans for enough houses agreed – but at the moment there is no mechanism for doing this. Perhaps when the government gives grants in City Deals or Growth Deals, it should stipulate that genuinely providing enough houses is required.

Richard Blyth is head of policy at the Royal Town Planning Institute.


*See Rt Hon Greg Clark & Greg Clark Nations and the Wealth of Cities Centre for London 2014


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