Multi-Speed Britain: The Widening of Urban Inequalities

by Dr. Stephen Hincks, Lecturer in Spatial Planning, Centre for Urban Policy Studies, Planning &  Landscape.

‘Globalization creates interlocking fragility, while reducing volatility and giving the appearance of stability. In other words it creates devastating Black Swans. We have never lived before under the threat of a global collapse’ (Taleb, 2007: 225).

The interlocking nature of the local and the global serves to create a sense of ‘scalar nesting’ that is comfortable and familiar.  Yet, during crisis events, the outcome of this intertwined relationship is largely predictable: ‘winners continue to win’ and ‘losers lose harder’.  It is inevitably at the local level – the city, the town, the neighborhood, the street – where this Molotov cocktail reaps its havoc.

The depth and severity of the global financial crisis became fully apparent in mid 2007. Based on quarterly GDP figures, the UK experienced the longest recession between the second quarter of 2008 and the third quarter of 2009 since the publication of quarterly GDP data began in 1955. It was also the first time that the UK economy had the largest quarter-on-quarter decline since 1980.  So I was intrigued earlier this week to read Cities Outlook 2012, a report published by the non-partisan think-tank, Centre for Cities (Centre for Cities, 2012).  The report makes the case – through an analysis of recent social and economic data – that the gap between Britain’s most prosperous and poorest cities is widening as a result of the economic crisis. The report found a case for a ‘two-speed Britain’ as more resilient urban economies – including the likes of London, Edinburgh and York – adapt to changing economic circumstances as less resilient urban economies – including Swansea, Hull, Liverpool and Sunderland – struggle to respond to changing economic imperatives.  Research undertaken by the Centre for Urban Policy Studies at the University of Manchester – prior to the publication of the most recent Cities Outlook report – goes further in arguing that rather than there being a ‘two-speed Britain’ there is in fact a ‘multi-speed Britain’ as different types of urban areas respond differently to the impacts of the most recent downturn (Wong et al, 2011).

This, you might argue, is all fairly standard so far.  However, what both reports are clear on is that current government policies seem to be widening, rather than narrowing, the gap between our urban areas.  Without wanting to get too caught up here in the respective analyses, both reports contend that the scale and depth of public sector spending cuts – introduced as part of the Coalition’s austerity strategy to combat the ‘spiralling national deficit’ – are adversely affecting towns and cities up and down the country with the greatest shocks being felt in metropolitan areas that are reliant on public sector employment.  Unemployment in our metropolitan cities has risen sharply and the welfare system has become a safety net across a widening spectrum of society as individuals and households look to ride-out the economic storm.

We are all aware that the current economic climate is intimately entangled with the sovereign debt crisis.  Experiences in the Euro Zone, North America and Britain poignantly illustrate this.  And so, the arguments made for reducing the UK’s national deficit are well rehearsed: the nation’s debt needs to be brought under control for the sustainability of the national economy.  Whether this is something that you accept or not (this rationale for introducing the deficit reduction plan has been contested on the basis that net public debt was about 60% of national GDP in 2010 compared to over 200% in the 1950s following the end of the Second World War) there is political appetite for reducing the deficit.  The Prime Minister’s suggestion, however, that ‘we are all in this together’ seems to be collapsing under the weight of its own hypocrisy.  As the Welfare Reform Bill – of which there are some welcomed aspects including attempts to incentivise work in response to rising levels of worklessness – moves through the parliamentary process debates over the introduction of a benefits cap and the implications of proposed reforms to the NHS have intensified.  In a recent piece written for The Guardian (23 January, 2012), Randeep Ramesh points out that the proposals contained within the Welfare Bill – irrespective of the nature of the transition period adopted as one welfare regime replaces the other – have the potential to increase child poverty and to adversely affect certain disabled groups in society which is something that has been acknowledged by the Coalition itself.  Position these proposals in the context of wider reforms in housing benefit and cuts in regeneration funding – the adverse effects of which are likely to be disproportionately concentrated in our metropolitan areas according to recent research by the Centre for Urban Policy Studies (Wong et al, 2012) – and you catch my drift.

For most people, the arguments made for reducing the deficit, including the need to improve the sustainability of national finances, are, however, broadly palatable.  But, it is the nature and intensity of the cuts that has proven most contentious.  Cut fast, cut hard to reduce the deficit quickly or cut in a slower and arguably more ‘managed’ way: broadly speaking, this has been the crux of the debate.  Clearly, it is too early to judge the success of the government’s strategy but recent OECD figures suggests that the markets have been slow to respond to the deficit reduction strategy adopted so far.

However, in my view, the deficit reduction debate has served to mask a more fundamental and altogether more toxic set of policy assumptions; namely that the claiming of welfare support (and state aid in general) is indicative of a mentality that ‘living off the state pays’.  Do not get me wrong, I am not suggesting for one moment that the much maligned ‘Gallagher-esque’ situation – a reference to the dysfunctional family through which ‘contemporary council estate culture’ is portrayed in the British television drama Shameless – does not exist.  Clearly it does.  But what I am clear on in my own mind is that it is extremely unwise, dangerous even, for politicians and society in general to adopt extreme denominators as benchmarks against which to measure the characteristics and cultures of a place, a situation, a scenario, an individual or a family let along to use these benchmarks as springboards for the development of policy.  Since assuming office in the spring of 2010, under the guise of ‘Localism’, the Coalition has introduced a raft of reforms and proposals including neighbourhood forums, mayoral systems, and the further ‘decentralisation’ of powers to local authorities all of which form part of a plan to reduce the democratic deficit that emerged (perceived or otherwise) under previous administrations.  In many quarters these ‘innovations’ have been welcomed with open-arms.  Yet, as the raft of Coalition reforms, Bills, Acts and amendments meander their way through the parliamentary process, I cannot help but feel that there is a politics of survival being actively played out here through which inequality could bloom further; a politics that the most vulnerable in society – who are disproportionately concentrated in our metropolitan areas – are least equipped to play.

References

Centre for Cities (2012) Cities Outlook, 2012. Centre for Cities, London.

Ramesh, R. (2012) ‘Iain Duncan Smith holds the line on welfare cap’ The Guardian, 23rd January.

Taleb, N.N. (2007) The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Random House, New York.

Wong, C., Gibb, K., McGreal, S., Webb, B., Leishman, C., Blair, N., Hincks, S. and McIntyre, S. (2011) Housing and Neighbourhoods Monitor 2011 – Fragility and Recovery. York, JRF.

Wong, C., Baker, M., Hincks, S., Schultz-Baing, A. and Webb, B.  (2012) A Map for England: Spatial Expression of Government Policies and Programmes. London, RTPI.

 

 

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