GaWC Research Bulletin 384

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Cities in Transformation - What Role for the State?

K. Pain*

Introduction – The changing realms of states and globalizing cities

The notion that the world financial system is overtaking the traditional power of states to manage national economies has gathered pace during the first decade of the twenty first century. The world recession following the global financial crisis that emerged in 2007/2008 has powerfully illustrated the challenges contemporary economic globalization poses for state sovereignty and territorial governance (O’Brien, 1992; Ohmae, 1990, 1995). At the same time, in spite of the virtualisation of digitised financial activity, globalising cities have become the key world locations for major international financial services, transactions and flows which transgress the territorial realm of states. Governments therefore have an ambivalent attitude to financial services regulation. On the one hand, contemporary industry practices must be reined in to avert the risks of future damaging economic contagion but, on the other hand, ‘global city’ based firms and their talented workforce are essential ‘new economy’ service suppliers and integral components of a vibrant national economy, so must be wooed and supported.

Recent UK policy debate on rescaling state regulatory mechanisms in order to engage with the global realm of finance thus reflects a basic tension between objectives for international cooperation to control the world financial system in the wake of the crisis and territorial competition to sustain London financial services inward investment which the UK economy has become dependent on. Yet it is argued here that, paradoxically,  the ability of the English governance system to respond effectively to the dynamics of globalised financial services is being compromised by the public policy shift to ‘localism’ which has occurred in the past decade.

The progressive dismantling from 2004 onwards of English regional government as the primary administrative scale for coordinated spatial planning and economic development leaves a void of institutional structures and specialised expertise to inform strategic policy in an international context. Furthermore, with the removal of the former nesting of spatial strategies from the level of the European Union down to that of English local government, a strategic evidence base needed to inform local action is being lost. Although London retains its directly elected assembly (the London Assembly) for the metropolitan area, with the loss of the regional planning tier for the rest of England, London’s complex relations with its surrounding functional region and other major UK cities, will lack a strategic overview. This leaves the sustainable development of the most globally important world financial centre and its links to the UK economy, potentially at risk at a critical time of international global city competition and financial turmoil.

The apparent contradiction between the global realm of London as a location for intense international financial activity and specialised transnational labour, and UK downscaling of English public policy for planning and development raises the question that is addressed from different angles by all the authors of this book, is public policy in crisis? Here this question is specifically considered in relation to changing narratives for English territorial governance at the turn of the millennium and the case of the London global mega-city region – what should be the role for the state?

Shifting scales of UK public policy - From ‘new regionalism’ to the new ‘new localism’

Following a long period of UK privatization and ‘rolling back’ the state under nineteen eighties Conservative neo-classical economic strategy, including the abolition of the Greater London Council responsible for coordinated policy for the metropolis, the resurgence of regional policy in the late nineteen nineties represented a paradigm shift in government thinking. Whereas former 1945 to late nineteen seventies ‘old regionalism’ policy had aimed to support UK regions exposed to global economic restructuring by providing grants and subsidies to relocating industries (Massey, 1983; Jones and Macleod, 1999), the creation of new regional government institutions, nine Regional Assemblies (RAs) and Regional Development Agencies (RDAs), by the 1997-2010 Labour Government, was an attempt to promote coordinated policy support for sustainable development across the patchwork of English local administrative boundaries.

A key influencing factor in Labour’s ‘new regionalism’ strategy was the European Commission’s (EC) political and economic vision for a ‘Europe of the Regions’ (Keating, 1997). Whereas the nine English ‘Government Office Regions’ established in 1994 by the former Conservative Government, had been introduced to rationalise and coordinate an assortment of pre-existing government department regional administrative offices, post 1998 UK  devolution (Hazell, 2000), European regionalism was to have a key influence in shaping a policy role for the English regions devolved from central government.

The ‘European Spatial Development Perspective’ (EC, 1999) and the North Western Metropolitan Area ‘Spatial Vision’ (NWMA Spatial Vision Group, 2000) set out a non-statutory agenda for spatial priorities to support European Union (EU)-wide economic growth and global competitiveness, territorial rebalancing, sustainable development and cohesion, since incorporated in the ‘Treaty of Lisbon’ (EC, 2007) and ‘Europe 2020’ strategy (EC, 2010; 2011). These priorities were incorporated in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) ‘Sustainable Communities’ documents which set out national priorities for the English ‘Growth Areas’ and the ‘Northern Way’ (ODPM, 2003a, b; 2004)  to be delivered by joint institutional and cross-boundary working at the regional level (Pain et al., 2006).

The boundaries of the designated growth areas did not fit those of the new RA and RDA regional bodies. In the South of England, the Milton Keynes–South Midlands and the Thames Gateway growth areas straddled the Standard Region boundaries requiring four regional spatial strategies (RSS), including London, and multiple stakeholder institutions to be involved in coordinating action (Pain, 2006; Allmendinger and Haughton, 2009). However it was the failure of plans for directly elected regional government, other than in Greater London, in 2004, which ultimately led to the abolition of the indirectly elected RAs responsible for Regional Spatial Strategy (RSS) in March 2010 and to the emergence of a central government ‘new’ or ‘conditional localism’ paradigm which supported more direct neighbourhood governance and saw the establishment of the ‘New Local Government Network’ (CLG, 2007; Allmendinger, P. and Haughton, G. 2007). Importantly, the new localism narrative was an attempt to democratise ‘the local’ by improving community involvement and accountability, however for policy areas such as transportation and housing the regional government tier was still seen as important to allow strategic planning for sustainable development (Walker, 2010). The new localism was therefore conditional upon new regionalism hence RA spatial planning responsibilities were initially passed to the RDAs with Local Authority Leaders’ Board participation and under Parliamentary scrutiny but nonetheless, criticisms of RDA constitution, effectiveness and costs had mounted by the time of the June 2010 UK national election.

In the absence of democratically elected English RAs, the lack of accountability of the RDAs, their apparent lack of success in boosting and rebalancing UK economic growth and a duplication of responsibilities with the Regional Government Offices (GOs) introduced by the previous Conservative Government, were criticised in many quarters (Marshall, 2008). Hence a cross-political party shift to a localism narrative was evident well before the June 2010 national election. However it was the newly elected Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government which completed the dismantling of the regional government tier for England by ordering the closure by March 2012 of the RDAs, including the London Development Agency whose responsibilities have been transferred to the London Mayor, and the closure of the GO network in March 2011, introducing a new ‘new localism’ paradigm reminiscent of the rolled back state under nineteen eighties ‘old localism’.

Politically, concerns with the lack of representative democratic accountability at the regional institutional level pre-election (for example, Conservative Party, 2010), reflected the contested nature of the English regions in terms of their boundaries and composition, as illustrated by heated debates over RSS housing numbers in the territorial political patchwork that comprises South East England (Pain et al., 2006). Nonetheless, the complete removal of the regional government tier leaves a deficit in the institutional capacity of England to ensure that spatial planning and economic development at a sub-national level are strategically informed, coordinated and sustainable.

The new space economy – Rescaling globalising cities

Alongside the late twentieth century policy focus on the region, the global cities literature has emphasized the economic resurgence and transformation of cities as the sites for talented labour, innovation and tacit knowledge exchange, which allow the contemporary production of capital, its circulation and accumulation (Friedmann 1986; Sassen, 1991, 1994; Pryke 1995; Budd 1998; Allen 1999). In spite of late twentieth century developments in informational and communications technologies, leading sectors of the new economy, the ‘advanced producer services’ (APS) - financial and linked professional and business services - are continuing to concentrate and cluster in dense global city business quarters such as the City of London. At the same time, through the extension of APS global office networks due to world economic liberalization, multiple interlinked cities are globalizing worldwide and becoming more functionally interconnected with London (Beaverstock et al 2000; Taylor 2001, 2004), hence London has been ranked the world’s most globally connected APS cluster since the year 2000 (Taylor et al., 2003; Pain, 2007; Taylor et al., 2010).

Amongst the specialized sectors that constitute international APS clusters, financial services are distinctive on account of their size and global reach and their interactions with other economic actors, sectors and cities. Flows of finance generated by their activity not only circulate between cities but are also temporally ‘fixed’ in city real estate infrastructures.  Global city business districts such as London’s ‘Square Mile’ and Canary Wharf are therefore not simply architectural symbols of the world capitalist economy but, increasingly, outcomes of the global financialisation of city development.

Since the nineteen sixties and seventies, radical urban studies literature has highlighted the power of finance capital to reshape city develop­ment and reframe urban policy (Knox and Pain 2010) as illustrated by the term ‘FIRE’ (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate), popularly used to describe the New York City development process. As Colin Lizieri has documented in Towers of Capital (2009a), innovative property in­vestment vehicles, private real estate funds and Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) which spread investment risk for major developments, have increased the integration between real estate and finance. Hence clusters of commercial office towers in London are not only occupied by international global city users, financial and linked business services, but constitute a fungible and tradeable financial asset which also exposes the City to global capital markets (Lizieri 2009b; Lizieri and Pain, 2011).

But whilst globalisation has intensified financial flows articulated through city-based APS office networks world-wide, leading to a general consensus that global cities now constitute vital international service economy ‘gateways’ for countries (Pain, 2010b), nation state sovereignty has been brought into question. Sociologist Manuel Castells’ (1996) theorization of the dominance of an emergent ‘space of flows’ constructed by network forms of organization, over the ‘space of places’ constructed by states, exposed a basic spatial dichotomy associated with economic globalisation - a bifurcation between the territorial spaces governed by the activity of states and the spaces of financial flows governed by the activity of globalising cities. The new space economy of cities is highly complex and dynamic, posing a conundrum for public policy in three ways.

Firstly, highly globalised mature cities such as London, which are spaces for transnational interactions and flows within and between APS firms, are internationally networked nodes for an unquantifiable volume of communications, exchanges and transactions within the city and at multiple wider geographical scales. Thus there is a polarisation of the scalar references of London as a highly globally networked city and of territorial public policy which is constrained by national and sub-national administrative borders. Writers such as Neil Brenner and Nick Theodore (2002a: 21) have stressed the politically contested nature of neo-liberal public sector strategies to “mobilize city space” through private partnerships (Brenner, 1998, 1999, 2004; Brenner and Theodore, 2002b, 2005).

Secondly, quantitative evidence on the location of key global APS offices, functions and people, reveals a world West-East rebalancing of the network connectivity of globalising cities since the year 2000 (Taylor et al., 2010). London and New York have remained the world’s most globally connected cities but Chinese cities, Shanghai and Beijing, have soared into the world top ten. In addition, Hong Kong which ranks third most connected global city for all APS (including financial services) and fourth most connected for financial services alone, gives China three top world ranking global cities. Significantly, China’s unique blend of capitalist economic growth, high capital reserves and strong state intervention in planning and funding strategic urban development projects, contrasts with the contemporary UK situation.

Hence at the world scale, a contradiction has emerged between the power and focus of rising states in economic globalization such as China which are investing in and strategically planning for global city expansion, and ‘old world’ states such as the UK, whose declining world economic power will continue beyond the recent global financial crisis.

Thirdly, at the same time, relevant scales for sub-national urban policy and governance are changing in the context of global city mega-urbanisation. As predicted by Allen Scott (2001), new scales of ‘functional connectivity’ (Hall and Pain, 2006) found in what he termed ‘global city-regions’ connected to the global order (Pain, 2007; 2011) are proving challenging for state territorial policy. Planning for global city-region economic growth and sustainable development requires a strategic spatial overview but can the boundaries of this emergent growth dynamic be established? As long ago as 1984, Jane Jacobs noted that “city-regions are not defined by natural boundaries, because they are wholly the artefacts of the cities at their nuclei: the boundaries move outward – or halt – only as city economic energy dictates” (Jacobs, 1984: 45) presenting a conundrum for the institutional state.

New territories for governance – The global mega-city region

While densely urbanised ‘mega-cities’ and ‘mega-regions’ have been identified in many countries around the world, there has until recently been a lack of research on the role and significance of global APS networks identified by Scott as stimulating vibrant economic growth around global cities (Pain, 2010a). An exception has been the 2003-2006 EU ‘Polynet’ study supported by European Region Development Funds, which rigorously researched the regional growth phenomenon associated with highly globally networked cities active in financial and business services in North West Europe. The findings shed light on the complex webs of city interlinkages specifically generated by APS networks in extensive functional areas, termed global ‘mega-city regions’, around nine major European global cities (Hall and Pain, 2006).

In all the cases studied, functional relations associated with APS network development were found to overlap with state and sub-national administrative and policy boundaries, endorsing Castells’ (1996) observation that contemporary spaces of flows do not relate to territorial space of places boundaries (Hall and Pain, 2006).  In the case of London, inter-city relations were found to extend far beyond the metropolitan boundary governed by the London Assembly and South East England Region statutory boundaries to include parts of the East of England, East Midlands and South West regions (Pain, 2010a). While sub-regional business markets influence office network location outside London, because APS networks supply services to each other at different geographical scales, their functional relations do not relate to territorially fixed government administrative areas at any level (Pain, 2008), emphasizing that boundaries must be regarded as ‘porous’ as argued within new regionalism literature (Harrison, 2011).

The cultural and the spatial ‘turns’ in human geography (Massey et al 1999) which led to progressive discourses critiquing and debating the meaning, conceptualization and scalar framing of ‘the region’ generally emphasize the importance of acknowledging spatial relations that criss-cross the space of places (for example, Storper 1997; Allen et al., 1998; Macleod, 2001; Jones and Macleod, 2004; Marston et al., 2005; Allen and Cochrane, 2007; Macleod and Jones, 2007; Brenner, 2009; Harrison, 2011). New understandings of the region have thus moved away from pre-nineteen eighties regional science and systems analysis and the traditional preoccupation with the definition of regional boundaries (Pain, 2010b). The porosity of boundaries makes effective democratic and institutional policy engagement with the development issues presented by global mega-city region emergence highly challenging. Yet because the development of a whole range of global mega-city region infrastructures, resources and services, including transportation and housing, require coordinated, long-term planning and investment, policy networking across administrative boundaries is essential (Pain, 2006, 2010c).

The Labour Government Communities and Local Government (CLG) 2007 ‘Review of Sub-National Economic Development & Regeneration’, 2009 ‘Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act’ and initiatives for ‘city-regions’, ‘Economic Prosperity Boards’, voluntary multi-area agreements and local economic assessments produced under conditional localism, were responses to new awareness of such cross-boundary challenges; furthermore regional strategic policy coordination was safeguarded by the nesting of spatial planning policies. There is a danger that, in the absence of intermediate institutions of government to integrate strategic spatial planning and economic development policy under Coalition new, new localism, such coordination may prove impossible.

Although the geography of the English regions outside London did not attract democratic support, regional economic development priorities determined in Regional Economic Strategies (RES) were based on wide stakeholder, including local government, consultation and were integrated in RSS which was itself informed by EU-wide and democratically elected UK central government strategic planning priorities (Pain and Hall, 2006; Pain, 2010b). Under new, new localism this will not be the case for it is to be left to local authorities and neighbourhoods (to whom local authorities will in future report) to establish local spatial development plans in the absence of strategic planning frameworks.

The apparent aim of community-based localism as currently being introduced through the 2010 ‘Localism Bill’ (HM Government, 2010), has been to drive down English democratic engagement with spatial planning and development to the lowest possible community level, thus it was originally proposed that the minimum number of people required to represent a local ‘neighbourhood’ would be just three people.

Localism as presently conceived, suggests contradictions between the rhetoric and the efficacy of its operationalisation and outcomes. As Neil Brenner and Nik Theodore (2002c) have asked

“Does the local really serve as a site of empowerment in the new global age, or do contemporary discourses of globalization/localization in fact conceal a harsher reality of institutional deregulation, regulatory downgrading, and intensifying zero-sum interspatial competition?” (Brenner and Theodore, 2002c: 342).

Business-led ‘local enterprise partnerships’ (LEPs) introduced in a letter sent to local authority and business leaders by the Coalition Government Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on 29th June 2010 (,  cover larger English geographical areas in order to stimulate economic growth in so-called ‘functional areas’ but LEPs too, lack an evidence base with which to inform local economic development priorities in the context of wider strategic issues (Pain, 2010c). In spite of the involvement of elected local council leaders in LEPs, their strong business leadership, encouraged by the Government, raises questions about their democratic and representative constitution and inadequate funding and staffing arrangements for LEP delivery are also of concern. Furthermore, although a duty to cooperate across boundaries is to be strengthened in the Localism Bill, it is unclear how effective policy coordination can be enforced where local perspectives on development and growth are not in alignment.

Importantly, a formal relationship between spatial planning and economic development no longer exists as there is no defined intersection between spatial planning, which is to be the responsibility of neighbourhoods and local authorities, and economic development to be determined by LEPs. Strategic spatial planning above the level of neighbourhoods and local plans has been removed per se with only a National Planning Framework to integrate national planning policies and a fast-track planning approvals system for nationally significant infrastructure projects such as airports and nuclear power stations to be determined by central government (HM Government, 2010; HM Treasury, 2010). This situation gives rise to the question whether local communities will be capable of, or willing to, engage with development matters that are not of interest locally. Allen Scott has described the wider region around global cities as an emerging “political-economic unit with increasing autonomy of action on the national and world stages” (2001b, 813) but the present system of governance for London’s global mega-city region leaves the city seriously ‘under-bounded’ in terms of its governance due an absence of institutional structures beyond the London metropolitan boundary to ensure strategic planning policy cooperation at an appropriate functional scale.

The narrative of a ‘regional world’ (Macleod, 2007) clearly poses major dilemmas for representative sub-national governance for strategic planning and development in the London mega-city region and for England as a whole. Elected mayors for other administratively under-bounded major cities will face similar strategic planning challenges to those presented for the London Mayor. The proposed institutional structures for the new, new localism (HM Government, 2010) will not override the territorialist constitution of what is in reality a highly interconnected English economic space. Furthermore, conflicting interests and tensions between constituent democratically elected local authorities comprising the functional space of the London global mega-city region will not disappear with its regional structures.

Conclusion - Planning the global mega-city region - Policy in crisis?

London has thus far retained its prominent global position as a hub and node for key transnational financial and linked business activity and skills in spite of repeated complaints from senior global APS network managers about its poor transport infrastructure and services for at least a decade. The London Mayor’s bid to create an LEP to cover the whole of the Greater London area should now allow economic development planning to be taken forward alongside strategic spatial policy set out in the ‘London Plan’. Nevertheless, with the removal of the regional government tier, no provision will remain for integration between spatial planning and action to promote economic growth at the wider London mega-city region functional scale which includes four growth areas, in spite of the complex functional interdependencies that cross the metropolitan boundary. 

LEPs that are intended to address business growth challenges for territorial functional areas outside London have been assembled rapidly on the basis of local business-related knowledge and with no equivalent formal structures for alignment with spatial planning under the new, new localism.  Thus while a presumption in favour of sustainable development in local planning decisions first discussed in the Conservative pre-election policy statement ‘Open Source Planning’ (Conservative Party, 2010), has been reinforced in later Ministerial statements, it is unclear how sustainable development can be defined at a local level in the absence of higher level strategic plans.

The rescaling of the English system of governance downward to the local thus raises the prospect of a lack of policy engagement with strategic development issues that are increasingly dictated by dynamic global relations, flows, and risks. Given the importance of the globalised financial system that operates through London and London’s business network relations with other mega-city region and UK cities, this policy deficit matters for the whole UK economy as demonstrated by the fallout from the ongoing financial crisis.  Significantly the recently appointed Coalition Government ‘Minister for Cities’ announced on 19th July 2011, is to focus on boosting the economic performance of English cities through local enterprise partnerships and enterprise zones, focusing on the Core Cities, thereby specifically excluding London and its functional relations with other UK cities. A statement on the new initiative by CLG Secretary Eric Pickles reinforces the absence of strategic thinking in the consideration of city growth dynamics "If we want our cities to be able to compete on the global stage, then we have to start locally. That's why we’re putting decisions on growth in the hands of the local leaders and businesses who understand their local economy” (BIS, 2011).

The need for London’s complex, multi-scalar relations to be taken into account in strategy is clearly vitally important but the institutions for governance of the global mega-city region will be weaker under new, new localism. At the same time, spaces of contestation will remain, reflecting local political geographies which may dictate the long-term economic success of London and the UK economy in a global context. In the present crisis posed by the absence of government policy to coordinate spatial planning, economic and sustainable development and diminished support for local delivery, an urgent question is how it may be possible for local communities, councils and enterprise partnerships to gain a conception of non-local, strategic issues that will ultimately shape local development and impact on collective supra-local interests. Given the functionally porous nature of the London mega-city region administrative boundaries, new collaborative governance processes are needed to counter territorial myopia and work towards a synthesis of approaches addressing the opportunities and challenges presented by contemporary city transformation.


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* Kathy Pain, School of Real Estate & Planning, University of Reading, e-mail:


Edited and posted on the web on 22nd August 2011