Monthly Archives: April 2011

Urban Policy – Stone Dead or Just Resting?

The Petshop Sketch - Monty Python's Flying Circus

Professor Brian Robson is co-director of the Centre for Urban Policy Studies at the University of Manchester. Here he talks about the changing role of urban policy and what kind of future it may have.

“Look, matey, I know a dead parrot when I see one, and I’m looking at one right now.” The jury seems largely agreed that, like the Monty Python parrot, urban policy is no more. The hand of Pickles has killed off what had been one of the fixtures of English policy for over forty years since the Urban Programme was first announced in 1969. Some of the more obvious indicators of the death of urban policy are the abolition of RDAs, the abrupt termination of Housing Market Renewal, the closure of The Northern Way and the inevitable weighting of public-sector cuts on deprived areas. Whatever is left nailed to the parrot’s perch is no longer what we professionals have come to know and love as urban policy.

But there are, as ever, counter arguments. If the bird is dead, it was a lingering death that began under the last administration, for example with the abolition of the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit or with the replacement of the broad-ranging Neighbourhood Renewal Fund by the narrower job-related Working Neighbourhoods Fund. Both of these reflected the rather unconvincing document of the Labour administration’s final ‘regeneration framework’ which took on board many of the arguments from the siren voices at LSE that broad-based spatial targeting of deprived areas was a waste of resources. And, of course, there are powerful arguments that all the panoply of area-based programmes and regeneration structures achieved rather little over the long term – regional disparities grew ever more pronounced, the map of deprived neighbourhoods stayed obdurately unchanged, and the only unambiguous winners were the handsomely-paid bureaucrats who administered and delivered programmes and the researchers who evaluated their impacts.

So, if it is debatable whether the new administration has single-handedly brought about the death of urban policy, what have we now got? First there is a strong case for saying that things are merely on hold, that dormancy dominates – whatever new structures or concepts have been put in place, we will not know if they are fair and effective until there are realistic resources that can be spent on them. At the moment, in the absence of significant spending, any policies, programmes or projects must necessarily look threadbare. Who can tell whether Local Enterprise Partnerships will work well if they have no money to spend; or whether localism is a concept to stir the soul of communities if the voluntary sector faces disproportionate cuts? Given the admitted need for fiscal prudence such dormancy may be here for some time.

Hence, an unfashionable view might be that rather than castigate the coalition for its destructive forays into urban policy we need cooler heads to evaluate the plausibility – and, in practice, the likely effectiveness – of the new structures and policies that continue to emerge from the new administration.

An example is the abolition of RDAs and their replacement by LEPs. This is hardly the disaster that many pronounce. The RDAs increasingly became swollen bureaucracies as they took on the delivery of more and more functions; it was hardly a plausible way of addressing regional disparities to create nine RDAs covering the whole country and with identical briefs to maximise growth – and, as we all know, in practice disparities increased; their assumption of responsibility for deprivation never really looked convincing; and their boundaries made little sense in terms of mapping economic entities – and ironically most worked to a sub-regional geometry focused largely on the major cities. So, I have no regrets at the decision to abolish the RDAs. My one regret is that The Northern Way was a consequential casualty (regret because it had begun to articulate a forceful case for the North and offered a powerful reinforcement of the advocacy role of the Core Cities). The LEPs may have been scrambled together too hastily and in too great a vacuum, but I have little doubt that they will increasingly begin to trace out a geometry of functional economic areas and prove a potent framework for making good locally-informed decisions. And, of course, they build on the eventual slow conversion of the previous administration to the merits of a city-region perspective and the formal declaration of greater Leeds and Manchester as city regions.

The recent outcome of the Regional Growth Fund has proved an interesting rebuttal to the advocates of RDAs. Finance for the RGF is far less than were the budgets of the RDAs, but under the chairmanship of an astute old hand at urban policy, Lord Heseltine, the resources for the first round have not only significantly increased but they show much more regional discrimination towards poorer areas than was ever achieved by the RDAs. If the estimates of consequential job creation are right, then of the 28,000 new direct jobs, 67% would be in the three northern regions and no less than 89% in these regions and the West Midlands. And if the private sector has been the major beneficiary of the RGF allocation this is an understandable function of the sensible aim to boost private-sector growth in those areas which are disproportionately reliant on the public sector.

So, rebalancing the economy – both in terms of regional growth and private-sector investment – appears to be on track and likely to become an important element of a new emphasis in urban policy. And, even in the absence of RDAs, in practice it is clearly feasible to marry the national, regional and sub-regional scales in order to address socio-economic problems.

Second is the far less easy case that can, as yet, be made for the notion of localism. The coalition has rightly been lambasted for the emptiness of what the concept might mean and for the fact that much locally volunteering already exists in countless communities. Were the concept to take root the danger is that it is the more affluent areas that would be more likely to benefit unless there were some form of overarching structure that could ensure a degree of fairness. Localism needs to be tempered with some wider form of oversight, but perhaps this may evolve as one of the roles assumed by LEPs. Nevertheless, the aim of injecting a firmer sense of social responsibility seems an admirable one and, of course, it picks up much of the rhetoric of the previous administration – devolving down to the lowest feasible level and strengthening local communities.
However, until realistic resources are available to facilitate and leverage a greater sense of local and civic involvement the jury must remain sceptical.

There are enough promising strands in the coalition’s evolving series of policy announcements for us to hold fire for a while. Unlike the Python sketch, it would be unwise to bash the parrot too hard in case it really does have some life that we might kill off. For those of us long in the tooth who have seen the cyclical fluctuations of urban policy over its astonishing forty years, we have grown used to the circus of what goes around comes around. Many however may be too young to have so world-weary a view of the oscillations of policy – or indeed to be aware of a Flying Circus sketch that was first performed in the very year that the Urban Programme was launched.

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High-Rise Heroes and the Big Society

Islington Estate towers in Salford

Islington Estate, Salford. Image - Fraser Chapman.

Leif Jerram (History) writes about the history of social housing in the UK and the challenges for today.

We all know that ‘our inner city estates’ are places of despair, desperation and architectural idiocy, right? We know that we need a ‘big society’, and that ‘society’ and ‘the state’ are not the same thing, right? But there are other questions to ask. Let’s start with the most basic one: where will your children live? And with current rates of house-building and house prices where will any working-class person be able to get a house in 2012, let alone 2025? Because when the Liberal, Labour and Tory city fathers of 1920s Liverpool, 1930s Manchester or 1950s Birmingham asked these questions, they came up with robust, vivacious, dynamic answers. For them, the ‘big society’ meant great houses, lots of houses, cheap houses, built in their millions by the private sector and town councils.

A survey of a house in Liverpool in 1929 captures some of the misery of British cities between the wars. The house had 9 rooms. Each room was inhabited by a family – this one was typical: ‘A young married couple, both 22, with a three-month-old baby. Husband describes himself as “casual labourer” but has apparently never even had an hour’s insurable employment… They live on 22s relief, of which they pay 5s. rent.’ Broken Britain indeed. But the response was to construct solid, well-built housing on a vast scale – not for the likes of this man, but for the respectable working class above him. He would move into their vacated slums. The City of Liverpool built housing for about 80,000 people in the 1920s inside the city boundaries, with a further 15,000 homes built outside the city. Then, in the 1930s, they moved another 60,000 out – right in the middle of a global financial crisis and prolonged industrial depression that dwarfs our own.

But it wasn’t just the state: our cities are ringed by vast belts of 1930s semis, financed through innovative, risk-taking financial products aimed at the lower-middle classes: cheap, low-deposit mortgages. So while city councils build 1.2m homes between the wars, the private sector built 3m. Even in 1933, in the depths of the Depression, 288,000 privately built houses were finished; in the last boom year of 2009, only 108,000 private homes were built. Why? Because planning laws now viciously restrict land supply, and middle-class suburbanites are proactive and ruthless in mobilising them to ossify their ‘communities’ just the way they are. And damn the consequences for the ‘young married couple, both 22, with a baby.’ Between the wars, planners set quality standards and building densities – but the rest, they left to the market. These are still some of the most popular houses and areas in the UK today. Commitment to quality + market-based solutions to land supply + innovative financial products = housing success.

And what of the ‘mistakes’ of the 1960s? The ‘never had it so good’ Tory government of the 1950s knew that for the 41% of Mancunians in 1951 with no bath, and 44% with no toilet or hot water, urgent action on a vast scale was needed. And so in 1957 they decided to build upwards, and Tory and Labour competed in city elections on how much they could build and how quickly, such that the Tories could win Salford in 1968. That was a big society – Tories holding working-class northern councils, determined to house their citizens. A working class desperate for light, clean, warm living moved enthusiastically to the high- and low-rise estates of the 60s and 70s. And they were mostly a success.

But in the crises of the 1970s and 80s, three terrible mistakes were made. First, building by the state stopped as the Wilson government collapsed into bankruptcy. This started the crisis of housing supply we feel today. Second, Labour gave people the ‘right’ to a home in the housing act of 1977. With noble intent, combined with the end of house building, this was a disaster. Housing officers were picky about who got council housing before 1977, and they worked hard to make sure estates got a mix of people – old and young, families and single, lower-middle and working class. The 1977 act changed all that. Whereas before, being an alcoholic or a single mum or unemployed or a refugee would have excluded you from public housing, with no new stock, being unstable or unemployed or unemployable or mentally ill or drug addicted or having lots of children by different fathers would now privilege you on the housing list – housing had become a ‘right’ and not a ‘reward’. Estates collapsed, and the ‘respectable’ working classes left when they could. The final blow was not the Thatcher government’s decision to allow the prosperous working classes to buy their well-built, spacious council houses; it was their insistence that the money raised should be spent on any old thing except more houses.

So by the mid 1990s, many social housing estates were either private and prosperous due to right-to-buy, or still in council hands but housing communities in crisis, unable to manage the ever-growing numbers of social problems crammed into their perimeters. But the problem can be fixed. Releasing land supply, challenging the more hateful aspects of NIMBY-ism, setting high construction standards and stimulating an inventive mortgage market would free the private sector to build good houses. And realising the limitations of the ‘big society’, and the occasional need for ‘proactive but not big government’ on a local scale would mean that we could start to put working people back into social housing and make it sociable again.

Thanks to Fraser Chapman for the image.

The City as Laboratory: Experiments in Urban Development

Oxford Road, Manchester

Andy Karvonen (Manchester Architecture Research Centre) and James Evans (Geography) discuss the re-emergence of the ‘urban laboratory’ term and how it is being implemented in Manchester.

There is growing recognition throughout the world that cities are some of the largest contributors to climate change while simultaneously offering multiple opportunities to realise low-carbon futures. Cities have high population densities, an inherent emphasis on the sharing of resources, unique local and regional storylines, and various legislative and cultural resources that can be leveraged to transform the global discourse on climate mitigation and adaptation into concrete, on-the-ground actions. But how should these local actions be undertaken? Through government regulations and incentives, third sector and citizen initiatives, public/private partnerships, or a combination of measures? And where do university researchers fit into the various low-carbon urban development strategies?

In the last few years, many climate change initiatives have emerged under the title of ‘urban laboratories’. Those who are familiar with the history of urban studies will recognise the term from the highly influential Chicago School of Sociology at the beginning of the twentieth century and the attempt by urban researchers to apply scientific principles to the study of urban evolution. Today, urban laboratories involve a wide variety of motivations, ranging from creative sector development to economic resilience, and cutting edge technology trials to environmental protection strategies. Most of these projects emphasise the creation of bounded spaces of innovation where experimentation and learning serve as the central focus of urban change. In short, the urban laboratory promises a significant break from development as usual in the face of extreme challenges posed by climate change as well as other wicked problems in cities such as resource depletion, economic inequality, unemployment, and cultural conflict.

The idea of the city as laboratory is incredibly enticing for researchers and policymakers alike but it also comes with risks. Many urban laboratories use the rhetoric of experimentation and innovation to mask business as usual or even worse, to further exacerbate existing inequalities or political structures, while others ground their experiments in narrowly focused future visions. However, the emphasis on learning and experimentation presents a genuine opportunity for university researchers to direct their research and teaching activities towards local projects. The laboratory provides a real world classroom where ideas can be tested, data can be collected, and resulting knowledge can be applied at multiple levels.

A perfect example of how climate change has spawned an urban laboratory is right here in our backyard on the Oxford Road Corridor. The Corridor Manchester partnership includes an urban laboratory where University of Manchester projects such as EcoCities, iTrees, and the Low Carbon Observatory are trialling new strategies of urban development while creating new social and physical relationships between the campus and its social and material surroundings. These projects tap into the increasingly urgent calls for ‘impact’ and ‘engagement’ in academia, improving the relevance of university research while recognising the city as a primary resource for teaching and learning. The urban laboratory suggests that universities can be more than just in cities but of them and academic research can be directed towards studying climate change and other pressing issues while also catalysing improved urban futures.