The fate of these once-confident places is sad. That so many well-intentioned people are trying so hard to save them suggests how much affection they still claim. The coalition is trying to help in its own way, by setting up “enterprise zones” where taxes are low and broadband fast. But these kindly efforts are misguided. Governments should not try to rescue failing towns. Instead, they should support the people who live in them.
In one respect this is an understandable, if depressing, conclusion – that places which have contributed so much to England’s glory should be allowed to die. But in other respects the conclusion is liberating.
The efforts aimed at regenerating the North have failed. I know we can point to grand shopping arcades, refurbished mills and many a shiny business park, things that have helped, have provided jobs and have created a sense of economic progress. But the truth is that these things are the fur coat that covers up the absence of underwear. The picture of Liverpool’s brilliant city centre, vibrant with culture, is wonderful. Yet the city still contains some of England’s poorest communities, places unbudged since the jobs went in the 1970s and 1980s.
And, before the wrath of scousers everywhere falls on me, the same picture is seen in Hull, in Teeside and, indeed, in Bradford. Faced with the pull of the South East and the attractions of Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle, these communities continue to struggle. Here’s one observer:
Cardiff, Manchester and Newcastle have their stunning new developments and you can tell there are people there with plenty of money just by walking around. Go a few miles up the read, though, and you will find blighted and boarded up small towns. It doesn’t matter how cheap they are, employers are avoiding them. The worse they get, the less likely firms are to relocate. The lure of cheaper property and wages only goes so far. It may tempt organisations away from the South-East but only to the larger regional capitals. Small town Britain is a step too far.
And the problem is about scale. Here’s a comment about Chicago, a far bigger and more successful city than Leeds, Manchester or Newcastle:
Some may say, “Aaron, weren’t you the one who said Chicago wasn’t a global city?” To which I’d respond, I’ve always said Chicago is a global city. I only think that the global city side of Chicago is not sufficient to carry the load for this gigantic region and state. It can’t even carry just the city, though to be fair if you broke off global city Chicago into a standalone municipality of 600-800,000 like San Francisco, Boston, and DC, it would be a very different story, at the municipal level at least.
Back in England, we can see the same in Manchester and Leeds – walk out from Manchester’s city centre and you quickly arrive in places that are the flip side of ‘shiny’ Manchester. Indeed, after Liverpool, Manchester has the highest number of deprived SOAs (‘super output areas’ for the curious). And Leeds with Seacroft, Harehills and East End Park isn’t so very different.
Even these more successful cities may not generate the critical mass to bring peripheral communities along with their thriving centres and odd little bohemian enclaves. If they do, this success will be at the expense of other places further removed and most significantly those sufficiently disconnected – Teeside, East Lancashire, Hull and The Humber.
Faced then with this challenge, what do we do? Right now we’re planning for a larger population, for new jobs in ‘creative’ and ‘knowledge’ industries and for more of the same (or what we believe to be the same). Except this isn’t the case. Quietly we are seeing a new focus – through ‘combined authorities’, local enterprise partnerships and city regions – on the three or four hub cities: Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle and, perhaps, Liverpool.
This focus may not be enough (or does there come a point at which London is so expensive, so unattractive that people move away) to prevent continued relative decline but it does at least hold out some prospect of betterment. For us in Bradford – and for that matter, those in Oldham, Chester-le-Street and St Helens – we perhaps need to work out how to do three things:
- Connect our communities to the City Centres – ideally by fast train or tram rather than by bus or trolley bus. This needs to be ambitious and requires some taboos – about providing free parking at railway stations, for example – to be broken. It’s not enough to simply tidy up the current networks, we need to connect places that aren’t connected as of now
- Provide transforming space – just because you can get from Saltaire to Leeds inside 20 minutes doesn’t mean you have to do so every day. In these connected places (and especially the deprived communities we’re bringing into the network) let’s offer low rent studios and live-work spaces – on the proviso that those renting put something back in the form of art, music, culture or other improvement
- Animate and decorate – create a sense of interest and excitement. Rather than some sort of dull positioning – Bradford’s current meme, I’m told, is ‘the producer city’ – we want to be a place where things are happening. But for this to work, we’ll have to let go of control and allow stuff (some of which might be a little odd) to take place.
Rather than sticking our fingers in our ears when faced with (and it’s not the first time) the truth about the prospects for our cities, we should accept reality and work with change instead of pretending it isn’t happening. The alternative is another generation of local politicians (and the pseudo-politicians that clutter up LEP boards and so forth) clattering back and forth to London where they abase themselves before civil servants and junior ministers holding out the cap ready for the next slug of "regeneration".