Monthly Archives: May 2011

Globalisation, Agglomerations and Regaining Balance

Image: Manchester Agglomeration.

Dr Marianne Sensier is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Political and Economic Governance (ipeg), University of Manchester. Here she talks about her recent study on agglomeration economies and how balance can be achieved in the economy.

Global imbalances are widely seen to have caused the financial crisis and subsequent recession. The downturn saw a sharp fall in trade and a synchronised decline of economic activity across nations. The recovery from this recession has been uneven across the world which has prompted increased discussion about economic rebalancing at regional, national and global scales.

Agglomeration economies occur when the concentration of economic activities leads to the emergence of positive externalities, which are transmitted both within and between firms through channels such as technological spillovers, an increasingly skilled labour market and enhanced firm-supplier networks. A recent ipeg study of mine (with co-authors Artis and Curran) has found that over recent years, both industry and service sectors have increased productivity in city regions (although for industry this has been accompanied by the cost of falling employment in this sector), where they benefit from the growing demand that a relatively affluent daytime population brings. The long term decline in traditional manufacturing, caused by increased competition in the global market place, also means industries are less likely to cluster together. However, we find that the financial services sector does benefit from locating near companies in the same sector.

“Made In Britain” (a book by Evan Davis to accompany his BBC 2 series to be shown in June 2011) supports the findings of this ipeg study. Evan Davis explains that traditional manufacturing was dispersed geographically mainly due to natural resources – i.e. the concentration of steel works in Wales due to the availability of pig iron and coal – but now with the rise of the knowledge industries, and the greater need for face-to-face contact, people cluster in particular regions which has lead to the regional imbalances we see today.

Globalisation has increased the size of agglomerations in that firms and workers are attracted to places with lower production costs and larger local markets which reinforce regional imbalances. In my view it seems that the only way countries can compete in the global market place is to make certain locations more desirable so that efficient firms looking to lower costs of production will move into regions. The free market does not allow this solution, agglomerations left to grow to unsustainable levels will lead to negative externalities of pollution, congestion and other social ills (as in the case of London, see the article in Saturday’s Guardian).

So what is left for policy makers to work with post Regional Spatial Strategies? Well the Coalition Government has created Enterprise Zones (announced in the March 2011 Budget and offering discounts in business rates, simplification of the planning system, superfast broadband, enhanced capital allowances for firms that focus on high value manufacturing, use of Tax Incremental Finance and support from UK Trade and Investment for inward investment and trade opportunities). In this global market place we need to compete internationally and other countries offer similar incentives for firms to locate. National and local support for business is vital to help them set-up, grow, access finance, innovate, network, train workers, export and compete in the global market place. Enhancing the regional skills base is critical and further support for education was mentioned in the Budget in the form of funding for work experience places, apprenticeships and the expansion of University Technical Colleges. Incentives to business and investment in education are essential to sustain growth of an economy, help the environment and rebalance wealth from the overcrowded regions within our nation.

Rebalancing Acts: Social Sciences and the North/South Divide

Post by Alan Harding, Director of IPEG

PM meets Richard Leese

One of the last Labour Government’s many targets, enshrined in the Regional Economic Performance Public Service Agreement (REP PSA) in 2002, was to ‘make sustainable improvements in the economic performance of all English regions and over the long term reduce the persistent gap in growth rates between the regions’. It was never altogether clear which part of that aspiration was accorded priority, nor what mechanisms were being employed to bring the second element about. Indeed, for policy analysts who were prepared to dig below the surface, there were reasons to suspect that the implicit driving force behind spatial development policy in England was the perceived imperative of managing growth in the London super-region more effectively.

Thus, for example, Treasury-inspired policy reviews in the fields of transport (Eddington), land-use and planning (Barker) and skills (Leitch) all came out in favour of refocusing public investment and recasting regulatory instruments to tackle pinch points and serve the ostensible needs of ‘hot’ labour market areas. The Sustainable Communities Plan of 2003, uniquely, drew a distinction between the growth management needs of the Greater South East and the ‘regeneration’ and ‘low demand’ challenges elsewhere. And official figures showed that in the years either side of the adoption of the REP PSA, regional spending per capita was growing faster in the London, South East and Eastern regions than elsewhere, even before mega-capital projects like Crossrail and the London Olympics came on stream.

As it turned out, Labour didn’t make it to 2014, when the first empirical test of its long term aspiration for regional rebalancing was due to take place. As the Coalition Government has since taken pains to point out, though, its predecessor, in common with every Government since the mid-1970s, presided over a widening of regional disparities that has accelerated more quickly in the UK than in other large, mature economies, including the USA. As Karel Williams and colleagues here at the university have established, the picture would have been starker still had the post-2000 expansion of public investment not helped create large numbers of additional jobs in the public sector and the ‘parastate’ in non-metropolitan England during Labour’s later years.
The Coalition Government has learned some valuable lessons from its predecessor about the political risk involved in setting measurable targets. It has also charted a course for rebalancing – of public finances, and between public and private sector employment – that clearly works against the short term prospects for more balanced spatial development. A cursory glance at the outcomes of the latest local spending settlement, for example, confirms that front-loaded cuts are falling most heavily upon England’s poorest places – disproportionately concentrated in the North – whilst the areas that escape most lightly are concentrated in southern shire counties.

And yet a commitment to rebalancing – towards manufacturing from services, exports from domestic consumption, and clean from polluting economic activities and energy supplies, as well as spatially – remains strongly represented in Coalition rhetoric. Consider, for example, Nick Clegg’s introduction to last year’s Local Growth White Paper in which he noted that ‘Governments of the past have contented themselves with growth concentrated heavily in some areas of the country… and within a limited number of sectors – notably, financial services. Yet the banking crisis and ensuing recession have proved that model is unsustainable. Crucially, it is also deeply unfair’. Or George Osborne’s comments on budget day this year; ‘Yes, we want the City of London to remain the world’s leading centre for financial services, but we should resolve that the rest of the country becomes a world leader in advanced manufacturing, life sciences, creative industries, business services, green energy and so much more.’

A year into its term of office, the Coalition can now point to a modest number of new, relatively low-cost initiatives that may make some contribution to various forms of rebalancing that could benefit non-metropolitan England in the longer term. What remains disappointing is the extent to which the academic community, particularly in the North, remains unrepresented in, and seemingly disengaged from, the ‘rebalancing debate’ either for the purposes of holding Governments of any political hue to account or, more positively, playing an active role in underpinning the economic, social, environmental or moral cases for limiting spatial disparities. At one level, our relative silence relates to a larger lacuna within the social sciences and humanities. I recall canvassing colleagues a few years ago, for example, for recommendations about work within economics or economic history which spoke to the long-run benefits of a spatially decentralised economy and was able to turn up but a single article that claimed to demonstrate, theoretically, how ‘peripheral’ growth generates greater returns than growth in the ‘core’ (of Europe, in this particular case). Equally, though, it raises some uncomfortable questions about the extent to which we, as social scientists, engage with issues that shape the places in which we live and work rather than, or at least in addition to, responding to the pressures that require us to demonstrate our global scholarly credentials.

The reason I set off on my largely unsuccessful trawl of literature on the advantages of spatial economic balance was because I was, at that time, part of an unsuccessful bid to bring the ESRC’s Spatial Economics Centre to Manchester. Since that time, I have watched as the LSE-dominated group that won that particular competition has advanced an increasingly influential but, in many respects, deeply problematic people-based ‘solution’ to spatial disparities. This essentially advocates dealing with the challenges that market-driven development throws up and limiting other interventions to enabling the movement of people to jobs. Next week in Liverpool, representatives of the N8 group of universities are meeting to discuss the prospects of developing a social science programme in and for the North. It will be interesting to observe whether, as well as congratulating ourselves for the contributions our institutions make to northern prosperity by the very fact of their existence, we can mobilise around an agenda that recognises we are of, as well as in, the North.

Soundscapes in the City: forthcoming research

Rajinder Dudrah, Drama/Screen Studies. This blog post highlights new research that is currently being completed for a special issue of the journal Midland History. The article in question contends how understandings of cities and their cultural histories might be articulated through the notion of the ‘soundscape’ via a case study of British Bhangra music in the post-war East and West Midland city regions of the UK (1).

A familiar point in contemporary urban and cultural studies is that cosmopolitan cities are not just experienced through sight but through the other senses as well: sound, touch, taste and smell. Nonetheless , there is a need to explore more fully, not only the experience of a city through the senses as they happen in the contemporary moment, but also how we might be able to think about the formation of cities and regions as developing from a historical understanding of the formation of those senses too. A cultural history of the senses in a given time and place might illuminate for us the possible connections between different people and their inhabiting of place and space through sense formation. In my current research I have been particularly drawn to the investigation of how a sense of place and space might be considered through the sounds of popular music that circulate through the city – sound as heard and seen in the cityscapes as people use and move through the city; and as these sounds are created out of particular cultural histories in cosmopolitan settings. The case of the popular music genre of British Bhangra is an interesting one: it is a soundscape in and of multicultural British cities.


The idea of the soundscape is developed as articulating at least two of the senses simultaneously: sound and sight; and is developed inter-disciplinarily from work undertaken in cultural anthropology, popular music studies and cultural geography. Soundscapes allows us to think about the movement of people from different places of origin in new places of settlement, and how they not only produce popular music anew (i.e. music that is inflected through their routes of journeying), but also how they make this music through instances of their arrival and contemplated futures. Popular music is a distinctive type of sound that has socio-cultural meaning and position, and the study of diasporic music such as Bhangra can assist in understanding how social landscapes are formed over time and in places where the music has been produced locally and disseminated internationally. To this end, the forthcoming article offers an analysis of how a Punjabi folk music becomes a genre of popular music, particularly in the post-war British Midlands. It draws attention to key cities and regions namely Birmingham, Walsall and the Black Country, Derby, Nottingham, and Leicester, in terms of how they have sustained the cultural production of this music and its industry. The article offers a cultural historical account of how and why different musical genres are fused together in Bhangra (Punjabi Folk, RnB, Soul, Reggae, Grime, UK Pop, amongst others); provides a historical overview of some of the places, spaces and people key to the evolution of the music; and presents a textual analysis of some song lyrics and album cover artwork to elaborate this soundscape of the British Midlands.

1- Malcolm Dick and Rajinder Dudrah eds. (forthcoming September 2011) ‘Ethnic Community Histories in the Midlands’, Midland History, vol. 36, no.2. Article in this peer reviewed special issue: Rajinder Dudrah, ‘British Bhangra Music as Soundscapes of the Midlands’.

References and further reading: email cities [@]

“Happy Crisis and Merry Fear” (Slogan on Athenian Wall, December 2008): Designing the dissensual city

Erik Swyngedouw at the School of Environment and Development writes about cities and urban activism.

Cover of Newsweek, 17 February 2009

On 6 December 2008, 15 year old Alexis was shot by the police on an Athenian square, an event that triggered weeks of violent urban protests and cascaded throughout Greece. Less than two years later, on 5 May 2010, three people were killed during riotous protests in Athens in the aftermath of the draconian policy measures the Greek socialist government had to take under the policing eye of the European Union and the International Monetary Fund to restore budgetary rigour and to safe French and German banks overexposed to Greek sovereign debt. On 17 July 2010, Grenoble was set on fire in a clash between rioters and the police. These are some of the recent installments of a sequence of events that saw insurgent architects in the global North trying to re-assemble the urban through anarchic outburst of irrational violence. This they did in the face of turbulent urban and social transformations for which they felt neither responsible nor had much power over their design. Emblematically starting with the French urban revolts of the fall of 2005, the retaking of the streets by protesters jumped around from Copenhagen to Lisbon and from London to Riga. Urban revolts and passionate outbursts of discontent have indeed marked the urban scene in Europe over the past decade or so. Rarely in history have so many people voiced their discontent with the political designs of the elites and signaled a desire for an alternative design of the city and the world, of the polis. Yet, rarely have mass protest resulted in so little political gain.

Politically impotent as they may be, these signs of urban violence are nevertheless telltale symptoms of the contemporary urban order, an order that began to implode, both physically and socially, with the onslaught, in the fall of 2007, of the deepest crisis of capitalism in the last 70 years, a crisis that finally exposed the flimsy basis on which the fantasy of a neo-liberal design for the city and the world of the 21st century was based. Several trillion Euro worth of bailout funding was put up by governments in the US and Europe to safe the financial system while the subsequent budgetary difficulties, manifest from 2010 onwards, prompted radical and devastating austerity measures of which the devastating implications still have to become clear.
There is apparently no alternative. The state as the embodiment of the commons has to be marshaled to serve the interests of the elite few. On 7 February 2009, Newsweek headlined its cover with the slogan ‘we are all socialists now’. Indeed, Newsweek is correct; they (the elites of the world) are all socialist now, corralling the state to serve their interest and to make sure that nothing really has to change – that capitalism can go on as before. And indeed, political dissent is virtually absent; few dissenting voices among ‘official’ political leaders, whether left or right, are heard. The only way – or so it seems in which real dissent can be articulated –is by making the public spaces of cities as recurrent theatres of impotent, violent, but passionate, outbursts of radical insurgent architects.

Urban activism that is aimed at the state and demands inclusion in the institutional registers of urban governance ripples throughout the urban and rituals of resistance are staged as performative gestures that do nothing but keep the state of the situation intact and thus contribute to solidifying the post-political consensus. Resistance as the ultimate horizon of urban movements has become a hysterical act; a subterfuge that masks what is truly at stake – how to make sure that nothing really changes. The choreographing of urban conflict today is no longer concerned with transgressing the boundaries of the possible, acceptable, and representable. Rather it is a symptom of the deepening closure of the space of the political.

Yet, the Real of the political cannot be fully suppressed and returns in the form of the violent urban outbursts, outbursts without vision, project, dream or desire, without proper symbolization. This violence is nothing but the flipside of the disavowal of violence of consensual governance. And it is exactly this repression of the properly political that surfaces invariably again in violent gestures in a sort of re-doubling of violence. That is, the return of the repressed or of the Real of the political in the form of urban violence, of insurgent architects, redoubles in the violent encounter that ensues from the police order whereby the rallying protesters are placed, both literally and symbolically, outside the consensual order; they are nothing but, in Sarkozy’s words and later repeated by the Greek prime minister, ‘scum’ (racaille), people without proper place within the order of the given.

If the political is foreclosed and the polis as political community moribund in the face of the suspension of the properly democratic, what is to be done? What design for the reclamation of the polis as political space can be thought? How and in what ways can the courage of the urban collective intellect(ual) be mobilised to think through a design of and for dissensual or polemical spaces. I would situate the tentative answers to these questions in three interrelated registers of thought.

The first one revolves around transgressing the fantasy that sustains the post-political order. This would include not surrendering to the temptation to act. The hysterical act of resistance (‘I have to do something or the city, the world, will go to the dogs) just answers the call of power to do what you want, do live your dream, to be a ‘responsible’ citizen. Acting is actually what is invited, an injunction to obey, to be able to answer to ‘What have you done today?’ The proper response to the injunction to undertake action, to design the new, to be different (but which is already fully accounted for within the state of the situation), is to follow Bartleby’s modest, yet radically transgressive, reply to his Master, ‘I’d prefer not to …’. The refusal to act, to stop asking what they want they want from me, to stop wanting to be liked. The refusal to act as is also an invitation to think or, rather, to think again. The courage of the urban intellect(ual) is a courage to be intellectual, to be an organic intellectual of the city qua polis. This is an urgent task and requires the formation of new imaginaries and the resurrection of thought that has been censored, scripted out, suspended, and rendered obscene. In other words, is it still possible to think, for the 21st century, the design of a democratic, polemical, equitable, free common urbanity. Can we still think through the censored metaphors of equality, communism, living-in-common, solidarity, proper political democracy? Are we condemned to rely on our humanitarian sentiments to manage socially to the best of our techno-managerial abilities the perversities of late capitalist urbanity, or can a different politics and process of being-in-common be thought and designed. I like to be on the side of the latter. This brings me to the second register of thought required.

This second moment of reclaiming the polis revolves around re-centring/re-designing the urban as a democratic political field of dispute/disagreement: it is about enunciating dissent and rupture, literally opening up spaces that permit speech acts that claim a place in the order of things. This centres on re-thinking equality politically, i.e. thinking equality not as a sociologically verifiable concept or procedure that permits opening a policy arena which will remedy the observed inequalities (utopian/normative/moral) some time in a utopian future (i.e. the standard recipe of left-liberal urban policy prescriptions), but as the axiomatically given and presupposed, albeit contingent, condition of democracy. Political space emerges thereby as the space for the institutionalisation of the social (society) and equality as the foundational gesture of political democracy (presumed, axiomatic, yet contingent foundation). This requires extraordinary designs (both theoretically and materially), ones that cut through the master signifiers of consensual urban governance (creativity, sustainability, growth, cosmopolitanism, participation, etc…) and their radical metonymic re-imagination. Elements of such transgressive metonymic re-designs include

1. Thinking the creativity of opposition/dissenssus and reworking the ‘creative’ city as agonistic urban space rather than limiting creativity to musings of the urban ‘creative class’
2. Thinking through the city as a space for accommodating difference and disorder. This hinges critically on creating ega-libertarian public spaces.
3. Visionary thinking and urban practices: imagining concrete spatio-temporal utopias as immediately necessary and realizable.
4. Re-thinking and re-practicing the ‘Right to the City’ as the ‘Right to the production of urbanization”. Henri Lefebvre’s clarion call about the ‘Right to the City’ is indeed really one that urges us to think the city as a process of collective co-design and co-production.

Thirdly, and most importantly, however, is to traverse the fantasy of the elites, a fantasy that is sustained and nurtured by the imaginary of an autopoietic world, the hidden-hand of market exchange that self-regulates and self-organizes, serving simultaneously the interests of the Ones and the All, the private and the common. The socialism for the elites that structures the contemporary city is Really one that mobilises the commons in the interests in the elite Ones through the enrolling and disciplinary registers of post-democratic politics. It is a fantasy that is further sustained by a double fantastic promise: on the one hand the promise of eventual enjoyment – “believe us and our designs will guarantee your enjoyment”. It is an enjoyment that is forever postponed, becomes a true utopia. On the other hand, there is the promise of catastrophe and disintegration if the elite’s fantasy is not realised, one that is predicated upon the relentless cultivation of fear (ecological disintegration, excessive migration, terrorism, economic crisis and urban disorder), a fear that can only be managed through post-political technocratic-expert knowledge and elite governance arrangements. This fantasy of catastrophe has a castrating effect – it sustains that impotence for naming and designing truly alternative cities, truly different emancipatory spatialities and urbanities.

Traversing elite fantasies requires the intellectual and political courage to imagine egalitarian democracies, the production of common values and the collective production of the greatest collective oeuvre, the city, the inauguration of new political trajectories of living life in common, and, most importantly, the courage to choose, to take sides. Most importantly, traversing the fantasy of the elites means recognizing that the social and ecological catastrophe that is announced everyday as tomorrow’s threat is not a promise, not something to come, but IS already the Real of the present.