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Cities and Communities Beyond COVID-19

How Local Leadership Can Change Our Future for the Better

Author: Robin Hambleton

Reviewed by: David Towell

Five years ago Robin Hambleton produced a major textbook, Leading the Inclusive City, a 400-page blockbuster of inspiring examples and scholarly reflection designed to provide a resource to civic leaders of all kinds in their search for innovative ways of meeting contemporary challenges in their own towns and cities. Cities and Communities Beyond COVID-19 is the timely and impressive sequel.

Written with both passion and urgency during the height of the Coronavirus crisis and published only two months later, this new book applies the insights and tools developed in the textbook to the task of 'Building Back Better' following the pandemic. Both thoughtful and practical, Hambleton offers a powerful agenda for local leadership in achieving a sustainable and inclusive future.

There are five main themes to his argument. COVID-19 has been, and continues to be, a huge global shock. But it wasn't unexpected. Preparation may have been poor but a new pandemic was top of the strategic risk factors for the UK government and many others. Nor was it 'out of the blue': in our collective stupidity humankind has been carelessly mistreating the rest of natural life on a huge scale. We had this coming.

Moreover this carelessness extends to the natural world as a whole. The rapidly advancing threat of climate change promises to make COVID-19 look like a storm in a tea cup.

There can be no going back. The shock imposed by the pandemic gives us the opportunity to stop and ask, 'What kind of future do we want?' Hambleton is clear: put most simply, going forward we must give priority to caring for people and planet.

These values have increasingly wide public agreement. Hambleton's distinctive contribution is to show that effective action on these goals requires that we improve radically the way we govern ourselves at all levels from the global to the local. In particular he emphasises the need to focus much more on place-based democratic leadership as an essential counter-weight to the place-less power of corporate and unaccountable elites who have got us into this mess.

His conceptualises what he calls the New Civic Leadership as involving 'strong place-based leadership acting to co-create new solutions to public problems by drawing on the complementary strengths of civil society, the market and the state.' Typically this leadership needs to combine strong moral purpose, a deep interest in the real lives of local people and an essentially facilitative approach to mobilising all possible contributions to creating a better future.

Hambleton seeks to show what all this means in practice through documenting examples from across the world. Leading the Inclusive City has eighteen 'innovation stories'. This shorter book includes five 'innovation cameos' together with a whole chapter devoted to the city of Bristol (where he has lived and worked for the last 40 years) and whose directly-elected Mayor, Marvin Rees, provides the book's Foreword.

The Bristol story is both illuminating and encouraging. Mayor Rees was elected in 2016 with the clear idea that his role is to offer leadership for the city, not just the city council. He recognises of course that elected local government is important but believes (and acts on the belief) that it is the way public organisations work in creative collaboration with the wide variety of other stakeholders in the city, including civil society associations, that holds out the real promise for making social, economic and environmental progress.

Accordingly the city has invested in several innovative working arrangements that include a multi-agency leadership group, thematic boards, wider city gatherings and a 'One City' office to orchestrate and support these forums. It has also invested in developing diverse local leadership talent.

It's only four years but the fruits of this collaboration are seen strategically in both a long term vision for the city that attends closely to the seventeen global Sustainable Development Goals and a climate plan that aspires to make Bristol carbon neutral by 2030. Nearer the ground a variety of short-term initiatives proposed by the forums have included a project to ensure that very poor children get fed during the school holidays and another to house street-homeless people.

Moreover this collaborative approach has been important in the local response to COVID-19, for example in providing trusted communication, mobilising voluntary effort to meet neighbourhood needs and now bringing the city together to build back better in the context of the previously agreed vision. Public health is done best when embedded in the communities whose health is being protected.

Hambleton concludes that the growing networking across empowered cities, nationally and internationally, brings new momentum to the wider change we need, even as national governments and international institutions let us down. We must make it so!

Cities and Communities Beyond COVID-19 is available to buy here.


The publisher is Bristol University Press.

Cities and Communities Beyond COVID-19 © Robin Hambleton 2020.

Review: Cities and Communities Beyond COVID-19 © David Towell 2020.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.