A nightmare scenario in Detroit – could it happen here?

FILE: Detroit Declares Bankruptcy

I was delighted to be asked to take part in The Guardian Expert Panel discussion on the nightmare scenario of Detroit – bankrupt, services collapsing, no viable economy and crime levels like a dystopian horror novel. The question was whether a city in the UK could end up in the same sinking boat – and how to avoid it.

Such an interesting debate. It made me think about how we write about poverty and deprivation, avoid stereotyping and/or create a self fulfilling prophecy of disaster. It also made me think about what alternative stories people and communities in Detroit might tell. Although we have better checks and balances in the UK to avoid the worst, there are plenty of examples of places where there is an over dependency on one industry and a toxic mix of under-investment. I feel it’s important that we don’t just say “this could never happen here” but we look the nightmare in the face and say “let’s make sure we act now to make sure it doesn’t.”

Have a look at some of the comments below…

Expert round-up: what lessons can be learned from Detroit’s bankruptcy? Read our panel’s views on what happened in Detroit, and how UK councils’ can avoid something similar occurring Sarah Marsh theguardian.com, Wednesday 14 August 2013 10.01 BST

Tony Travers is director of the London School of Economics’ London research centre
Detroit says nothing at all about the limits of localism: In Britain, we have surely reached the very limit of centralism. The core of Whitehall has so many powers it cannot realistically use them effectively. Cities and city regions offer a good basis for a step towards devolution, which would allow (modest) risk-taking by their leaders. City leadership has already worked well in Manchester, Newcastle and Leeds. The London model, with partial devolution, has prospered. Why not allow more experimentation and locally-determined investment.

Alex Nurse is research associate at the University of Liverpool
Cities that pin their hopes on one industry might be setting themselves up for a fall: The key is to diversify. While big companies are key to this, smaller companies have a role that shouldn’t be overlooked.
There are many things preventing UK cities from “doing a Detroit”, particularly around budgeting: The scale and scope of what US cities are expected to fund is very different to our own. However, the basic ingredients [for a similar situation] are there — Liverpool, for example, has seen a similar level of population decline over the last 50 years (about 47%).

Dawn Reeves is a former local government director and author of Hard Change
The issues in Detroit were known for decades: People saw and lived the reality of a disaster as it happened and even then action – at a significant enough scale – wasn’t taken. There needs to be an honest assessment of the underlying structural issues and weaknesses in the economy that is shared locally and nationally and a willingness to consider the worst case scenarios. If this doesn’t happen then the solutions offered may not be on an appropriate scale for the challenges.
Some authorities have done impressive work on scenario planning: Looking at what could happen has driven a bigger response to economic decline and faster action on critical issues in a joined-up way.

Giles Roca is head of strategy at Westminster city council
Detroit is a clear failure of leadership rather than a failure of localism: It needs to be seen in the wider context of the failures of other economies and countries at the national level. Indeed some of the issues facing Greece, Portugal and Ireland are remarkably similar to Detroit.
There are some lessons for us and other countries: We can learn about the failure to provide clear, strong political leadership, the failure to diversify a stagnant economy based around a single industry and a failure to understand wider trends and where the market is moving.

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