Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Regenerating the North - a start...

There was a small storm when The Economist spoke of the problems facing the more peripheral Northern towns and cities:

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.

The articles pointed to places like Hull, Hartlepool and Middlesbrough, once thriving places now struggling. The argument is that these places – and the word place is important in this discussion – have got beyond the fixable meaning that we need to manage their continued decline by supporting those who stay and encouraging those who leave.

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.
I would go a step further in this understanding – this author suggests that firms may move away from London but only to places with those ‘stunning new developments’ (and I would argue within swift travel of central London – perhaps the only sound argument for HS2). The reality is that – unless, like the BBC, politics forces the move – these firms are not relocating to Leeds, Manchester or Newcastle let alone Bradford, Liverpool or Nottingham.

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.
In simple terms Aaron is saying that, despite Chicago’s success (the company headquarters, commodities exchanges and cultural excellence), it is not sufficient of an economic driver to drag the wider hinterland – that old rustbelt greater Chicago – along behind. Those communities get left behind.

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:

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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.
These aren’t a solution – we can and should expect many of our brightest to go away, to leave for London or even for New York and Hong Kong. And – whatever the planners are saying right now – many of our communities will decline in size, the inner city will hollow out a little and the suburbs will get a little more crowded. But this process presents us with opportunities to do some things differently – to build an urban golf course in Allerton or a cycle track in Barkerend, to have some more new parks and open spaces and to fill them with the wild and wacky.

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".



MIke Chitty said...

Change the relation between successful centres and their hinterlands from dependent/counter dependent to independent/interdependent. Challenge the assumption of an employer led economy where there will be 'jobs for all' to one of self reliance. After years of learning obedience and compliance as the keys to success in essentially blue collar towns, now people have to figure out what they are going to do to get by, because those shiny mills are not employing people like they used to. And probably never will. Strong communities build infrastructure. Infrastructure rarely leads to strong communities these days.

Tom Paine said...

Regional policy has never worked but it fits the statist mindset of a bureaucracy that deludes itself it is the cure for all ills. It also creates 'farmed' voters who are so dependent on government largesse they can be relied upon never to vote for a smaller state even as its growth strangles our economy, reducing more and more people to the same dependence.

Instead of providing infrastructure where it is needed - in successful places - government has burdened the successful with taxes and all of us with debt in in order to subsidise cities that are simply no longer required. Meanwhile London, the only city that consistently makes a net contribution to the Treasury, is becoming less and less liveable because of inadequate infrastructure and its people impoverished by crippling housing costs.

That doesn't mean the people of the North are not needed of course. They simply need to relocate, just as their ancestors did when they moved to those Northern cities in the Industrial Revolution.

If Northerners had not been subsidised to stay in their zombie cities (who would start one in Liverpool or Manchester now, if they were not already there?) would we have needed to draw in so many economic migrants from abroad to keep the economy working?