The way we run England’s towns and cities is on the verge of a dramatic overhaul. Sir Michael Lyons is publishing his long-awaited review of councils’ powers and funding before the end of the year, while the government is due to publish a white paper on the subject.

Anthony Williams, Mayor of Washington DC
Credit: Mark Dickson

Anthony Williams, Mayor of Washington DC

Both documents are likely to signal a shift towards greater powers for town halls. The hope is that giving local communities more control over their affairs will aid regeneration. But in return for giving away power, ministers are likely to want more executive mayors in Britain’s other urban centres. David Blackman looks at how strong mayors are regenerating cities in the USA and Europe and what lessons they offer for the UK.

Just over 10 years ago, Washington DC was the definition of the term “local government basket case”. With the US capital’s administration in severe debt, the low point came when the city’s mayor, Marion Barry, was photographed in a massage parlour smoking crack cocaine.

The US federal government stepped in and appointed an executive board to take direct control of the city. The board’s financial director Anthony Williams got the books back in order. Two years later, when the government decided that Washingtonians could once again take responsibility for their own affairs, he ran for mayor and won. Now coming to the end of his eight-year fixed term, Williams has presided over a rejuvenation of the city.

The re-establishment of tight fiscal discipline at city hall has been the pre-condition for success, argues Alice Rivlin, a director at the city’s Brookings Institution think tank.

She says: “The city is developing strongly. Williams has reconstructed the planning office that had fallen apart and brought in good professionals and worked with the government and the private sector.”

The visible manifestation of this revival has been a development boom in the city centre, says Washington-born Adam Marshall, senior researcher of the Centre for Cities at the Institute of Public Policy and Research. “He has focused very strongly on strengthening the city centre. There has been an explosion of development in the east end of the city, which was the old downtown that had been left to die in the 1970s and 1980s. And the development has been a mix of uses, whereas before development was purely offices, making it a 12-hour city.” Up to 10,000 people now live in the city centre, an area that has undergone a residential boom akin to that in Manchester. “There’s intensification happening on a scale that has not occurred anywhere else in the US in the last few years,” says Marshall.

In addition, Williams has invested in anchor projects that have extended the city centre, notably a new convention centre. And he is seeking to pull off the same trick with a new baseball stadium to the south-east of the city centre, which is sparking a rash of development in the surrounding area.

Williams has stimulated development by using public money to provide such flagship projects and offering tax breaks. Tax increment finance (TIF) schemes have been widely used to increase the viability of residential and mixed-use schemes that were perceived as too high risk 10 years ago.

Williams’ focus on the city centre has sparked criticism that he is neglecting the overwhelmingly black city’s poorer neighbourhoods.

But the mayor points out that such neighbourhoods need a strong city-centre anchor to succeed. And the federal government’s Hope VI housing renewal programme has transformed some of Washington’s toughest social housing estates. Williams has complemented the programme by setting up TIF schemes to help revive the retail strips within those neighbourhoods. As a result of such initiatives, Washington DC is increasingly seen across the world as a regeneration success.

Sergio Chiamparino, Mayor of Turin
Credit: Mark Dickson

Sergio Chiamparino, Mayor of Turin

The city of turin was dominated by Fiat and its owners, the Agnelli family, for most of the 20th century. “We had a beautiful baroque city that was being treated as an industrial zone,” says Greg Clark, adviser to both the UK government and the OECD on economic development. The subjugation of the city’s wider needs to those of industry undermined the quality of the urban environment. Then that industry went into decline.

Turin’s renaissance was kick-started in the early 1990s by Valentino Castellani. He arrived just after the Italian government had handed mayors sweeping new powers and financial freedoms.

Big-city mayors now had powers over planning and compulsory purchase as well as control over the city’s property tax revenues. They could also set up joint ventures using municipal assets and raise bonds. Castellani drew up a strategic plan for Turin much more focused on the global economy.

Sergio Chiamparino, a member of Italy’s centre-left L’Ulivo coalition, took over in 2001. He increased his slender majority to 67% earlier this year. Marco Santangelo of Turin polytechnic says that while Castellani had the vision to transform the city, Chiamparino’s political skills have helped to turn the idea into reality. “He is a real politician, he has the ability to make people work together.”

Chiamparino has raised Turin’s international profile, notably through the Winter Olympics, which the city hosted early last year. In order to get the city’s infrastructure up to scratch in time for the games, Chiamparino borrowed from the European Investment Bank and raised bonds. The baroque city centre has been restored and disused industrial land is being reclaimed as part of a 25-year urban renewal project. The biggest single project has been the creation of a new metro, which has in turn opened up opportunities for development along the old railway lines built to serve the city’s factories, which have been ripped up. Clark, who also advises Turin, says: “You had railway lines running down the middle of boulevards that were preventing pedestrians getting from one side of the road to the other. They were a serious barrier preventing the reuse of disused industrial land.

To create a high-quality place that is attractive to workers in the knowledge economy, you had to get rid of the railway lines.”

Clark says the financial freedom available to Italian mayors is critical when attempting to re-engineer the infrastructure of an industrial city. Regular public funds are not sufficient for such a task. Now, in an echo of the UK’s move towards the creation of city-regional authorities, Chiamparino is drawing up a strategic plan that embraces the Turin metropolitan area beyond the city council’s borders. The strategy is paying off. Italy’s most renowned architect Renzo Piano has submitted plans to build the city’s tallest skyscraper. And Microsoft is setting up a joint project with Unesco to transfer technical knowledge to the third world, which will be based in the city. With Motorola already having its European HQ in the city, the base is being laid for Turin’s 21st-century economy.

Wolfgang Tiefensee, Ex-mayor of Leipzig
Credit: Mark Dickson

Wolfgang Tiefensee, Ex-mayor of Leipzig

Leipzig has a low demand housing problem that makes England’s more depressed northern cities look like the Home Counties. An estimated 60,000 properties lie unoccupied in a city with a population of half a million, or slightly less than Bristol.

“It had the biggest single housing problem in all Europe,” says Sir Peter Hall, professor of planning at the Bartlett school of architecture, who has published a comparative study of Leipzig and Manchester. As well as huge system-built public housing blocks on Leipzig’s outskirts, the inner city contains large areas of rundown older housing that is intermingled with industry.

Tackling this massive over-supply of housing, part of the wider depopulation that afflicted all of eastern Germany following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, was just one of the regeneration challenges facing Wolfgang Tiefensee when he became mayor of Leipzig in 1998.

Tiefensee recently stepped down from the role of mayor to become minister of transport in chancellor Angela Merkel’s federal government, but he made his name as an anti-communist activist in Leipzig, which was the nerve centre of opposition to the former regime. He went on to become a a Social Democrat party politician and was elected mayor of his native city for a seven-year term.

German mayors have more powers and financial resources than their UK counterparts. They have access to property rates, a 14% share of the city’s income tax revenue and a levy on local businesses’ profits.

Tiefensee has also been successful at securing external resources that the city itself lacked because of the dramatic contraction of its business base and population during the 1990s.

“Tiefensee has been very active in fundraising and he was a propagandist for the city,” says economist Ulrich Pfeiffer, who worked with Hall. He says Tiefensee capitalised on the widespread sympathy within Germany for Leipzig, stemming from the city’s pivotal role in the overthrow of the communist regime.

Tiefensee has used his political wiles to winkle money out of the Saxon state government for Leipzig’s infrastructure. Projects that have been developed over the past few years include a new tram system, an airport, an inland dock and a convention centre.

In addition, Pfeiffer gives credit to Tiefensee and the city government that he led for attracting federal and state funds for the refurbishment of the city’s rundown older housing. “Investors realised that if you go to Leipzig, you get results,” he says.

Tiefensee also boosted the city’s profile by bidding to host the 2012 Olympic Games. Leipzig was nominated as Germany’s candidate to host the games. The city failed to make it on to the final international shortlist, but submitting the bid showed the rest of Germany that Leipzig meant business.

Tiefensee has concentrated much of his attention on attracting blue-chip employers to the city. The prize scalps have been BMW, DHL and Porsche, all of which have located facilities in the city. Unemployment is still high at 20% of the adult working age population, but has fallen by three percentage points in the past year alone.

And now the city’s population is beginning to recover, with the most recent figures showing that it is back over the 500,000 mark.