Spotlight on Festival of the Future City – October 2019, Bristol

Bristol Festival of Ideas’ biennial event, the Festival of the Future City takes a deep dive into city transformation. The 2019 focus was on how lessons from the major housebuilding programmes of the interwar years can inform our approach to tackling the shortages we face today.

The IPM attended a panel debate entitled “Can Both Cities and Town’s Prosper”, chaired by Nick Pearce of Bath University, and with Kerry Hudson, Author of Lowborn, Will Jennings of the Centre for Towns and Ros Wynne-Jones, writer of the Mirror’s Real Britain column participating. The debate was framed around the notion that continuing devolution to sub-regions and cities is ‘leaving towns behind’.

The phrase ‘left behind’, applied to towns, is politically emblematic. Will Jennings points out that coastal and former industrial towns, which have seen the most economic decline are also some of the most fervent UKIP strongholds, and are more likely to feature socially conservative people among their residents. This is in contrast to cities which tend to attract a greater churn of residents, who tend to be more liberal in their social values, and are more likely to come from diverse backgrounds.

The effects of austerity such as the closure of libraries or the withdrawal of support services are more noticeable in towns. In walking the route followed in Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier, which highlighted the poverty and precariousness of England’s industrial north in the1920’s, Ros Wynne-Jones has drawn attention to the return of slum housing and a breakdown in infrastructure. Wynne-Jones contends that these problems also contribute to overcrowding in cities, since there are insufficient attractors to town-dwelling at this time. She also calls for the greater distribution of jobs across the regions to encourage people to live in towns as viable economic units.

Metro-mayors are providing regional cities with increasing power to attract investment and infrastructure, increasing the agglomeration effect. With such powers lacking in towns, more localised governance is seen as a key tool for towns to self-determinate – citizens assemblies and deliberative democracy are showing what can be achieved at the town-scale to develop local economies, identity and networks, with the Preston Model of community wealth building - in which the Institute for Place Management were a research partner - a key example.

According to Wynne-Jones, Poverty Truth Commissions have also proved a cathartic process. Run in towns and cities across the UK, they are allowing citizens to identify and challenge the causes of poverty, developing new place-based approaches to solving the challenges. Civic universities and the concept of the ‘micro campus’ have also been seen as a key opportunity for towns with declining high streets, where empty units are repurposed for skills development and learning in a town centre environment.

Among the conclusions of the panellists was that a greater focus on UK urban policy in general was required, tied to the broader ambitions of the millennium development goals and EU urban agenda.