Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Partnership: No One Said It Would Be Easy1

Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Partnership: No One Said It Would Be Easy1

Article excerpt

'Partnership' has been described as the aerosol word - sprayed on everything, means nothing. It has entered the Local Government Association (LGA) magisterial list of '"Top 100 non-words" alongside atrocities such as "beaconicity" and "peer challenge"' (LGA, 2007). The Dictionary of Urbanism quips: 'partnership: a loose connection of people and organisations with conflicting interests held together by the prospect of securing government money' (Cowan, 2005). One of my early partnership baptisms was establishing a Groundwork Trust with one of our more Stalinist local authorities. 'Just remember one thing', a world-weary senior officer lectured me, '... we're totally signed up to this partnership ... so long as you stick to doing exactly what we want'.

How do we make better places? 'Partnership' is the mantra. But what are partnerships and how can they be made to work? Are there special ingredients in successful partnerships? How do we improve their design, development and leadership?

Is the LGA's reductive definition of partnership as 'working together' adequate? No. Our economy, society and environment are dysfunctional. The sky is dark with black swans coming home to roost. Apocalyptic visions encircle. Climate change is inexorable. Our economy has experienced a spectacular episode of value destruction. Inequalities shame us (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2010).

Partnerships for sustainable development

This toxic state of affairs confirms that there is no alternative to the organising principle of sustainable development. Business as usual is not a viable option. Sustainable development means dismantling unnecessary sectoral and institutional barriers. New links and alliances must be forged. Partnerships are useful. Partnership working can contribute to the future of the planet and society. More must be achieved with less. Rocky Mountain Institute's Amory Lovins: 'Over the next decade our species takes its university finals. Get revising' (Lovins et al., 1998). And that was more than 10 years ago.

Partnerships are not the answer to everything. However, there is compelling evidence that the whole can be made to add up to very much than the sum of the parts. The Mersey Basin Campaign (2010) is an excellent example.

Partnerships in practice

To appreciate the present state of partnership practice in the UK public sector, it is helpful to remember its origins. Ecology and biology illuminate species interdependence and symbiosis. A fast rewind to the early 1980s is more directly relevant to planners: several drivers then combined to fire the starting pistol on the regeneration partnerships bandwagon. Top-down Thatcherite rhetoric waxed lyrical about rolling back the boundaries of the state and privatisation of public assets. Bottomup community action, conflict and partnerships were capturing the attention of the media. The 1981 Toxteth riots, the worst in mainland Britain for a century, were a landmark. Michael Heseltine, Thatcher's Secretary of State for the Environment, parachuted into Liverpool in their wake (Unger, 2007). Heseltine vividly recounted his experiences at the Mersey Basin Campaign's final conference in 2009 under the title 'It took a riot'.

Heseltine redirected Groundwork from what would have been a dreary publicsector experiment into the first government-backed regeneration partnership. Its first strap line was 'partnerships for action'. He initiated the Mersey Basin Campaign as an unprecedented 25-year programme. The common factors in these and other emerging initiatives were innovation, action and partnership across the sectors. Business leadership was thought to be a magic ingredient, sprinkling stardust.

A huge volume of water has flowed under the bridges of the Mersey as well as less interesting and provocative rivers since then. The concept of partnership working has shifted from the margins to the mainstream of public policy and delivery in central government, government agencies and local government. …

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