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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