Tag Archives: Governance

Welcome Back Planning…

…with the release of Manchester’s Core Strategy, a new vision for the city emerges. 

by Iain Deas, Nicola Headlam and Graham Haughton, Planning, University of Manchester.

Manchester’s core strategy was approved last week (11th July 2012), setting out a series of planning policies to help realise the council’s vision for the city in 2027. The plan had already hit the headlines a month previously, when the Manchester Evening News led its front page with the headline “Manchester: the masterplan”, accompanied by a fine aerial picture of the regenerated city centre[1]. Beneath this were a series bullet points setting out Manchester’s aspiration to “join the ‘first rank’ of world cities – ahead of Milan and Munich”, with 80,000 new residents and 60,000 new homes, a built environment replete with new skyscrapers and pedestrianised zones, and a ‘jobs bonanza’ resulting from continued economic growth.

After years in the doldrums, it was of course heartening to see planning become front page news again. In a context of recurring efforts to discredit planners, it was doubly reassuring to see planning presented in a positive light.  And given the occasionally adulatory coverage of Manchester’s successes in urban regeneration, acknowledgment of the central role of planning was undoubtedly overdue.

The release of the new plan suggests that planning in the city may not be quite as irrelevant or problematic as some critics have claimed. For some years now influential voices amongst Manchester’s policy elite appear to have viewed planning as an impediment to growth. The result has been that planning concerns have often been relegated to the margins of debate about how best to engineer Manchester’s economic, social and environmental revival[2]. Sceptical views about planning have been articulated repeatedly over the last two decades. In 1995, the Manchester Evening News (p.9) carried a full page interview with the chair of the city’s planning committee, Cllr Arnold Spencer, in which he set out in forthright manner his exasperation at the increasingly anti-planning stance of the council, then under Graham Stringer’s leadership. In it, Spencer bemoans the apparent antipathy to planning amongst the city’s leaders: “Stringer has actually said that congestion is a sign of economic growth. For him all that congestion in Cross Street means the city is doing well. People are gasping with asthma, but Manchester is doing well.” This was just one year after Manchester hosted the ‘Global Forum’, a post-Rio Earth Summit meeting, which attracted 1500 visitors from over 60 countries.

For some of the key people at the heart of the growth coalition that emerged in Manchester in the mid-late-1990s, planning was an unavoidable but mundane administrative activity, not unlike environmental health, with which the formerly freestanding planning department was eventually merged. Reading between the lines of the book written by the then director of the Manchester’s planning department,[3] one can just about sense the tension between a view of planning as a formal, ordered and necessary control on development, and the strongly pro-growth, development-first view articulated by the self-styled go-getters driving the city’s growth coalition.

This tension emerged at a time when the city’s policy elites were beginning to piece together a more expansive and longer-term strategy for Manchester’s future development. Emboldened by successful efforts to attract grant funding and high profile events, and encouraged from above by Whitehall civil servants keen to see provincial cities ‘punch their weight’, the city’s leading policy actors embarked on a series of initiatives to develop strategy that extended both spatially (to the neighbouring authorities) and sectorally (to an array of participants from public agencies and business). Marginalised within this otherwise inclusive grouping was the city’s planning department. Amongst the city’s leaders, it seemed, there was little appreciation of the potential for strategic planning to offer a bold, imaginative and farsighted vision of the city of the future. Inspiration and foresight would come from elsewhere – from the movers and shakers of the city’s elite, rather than the technocrats of the planning department.

The paradox here is that although planning, as a profession and as an administrative entity in Manchester City Council, has often been side-lined, planners have often played an instrumental role in shaping efforts to regenerate the city. As Michael Hebbert has argued[4], planning principles – notably from urban design – have been central to many of the regeneration efforts for which the city has been lauded.  Urban design ideas were critical to the redevelopment of the city centre, guided by an overarching masterplan, from the late-1990s. They also underpinned the revitalisation of Hulme, and subsequently informed a design guide which extended across the city. Planners occupied senior positions in the organisation managing the regeneration of East Manchester, as well as Hulme.

The marginalisation of planning in the heyday of Thatcherism is, of course, well documented.  What is perhaps more surprising is that the ‘planner blame thesis’ has endured, undiminished amongst leading policy-makers in Manchester. The perception of planning as yet another form of red tape, stifling entrepreneurial zeal and hampering the city’s economic recovery, has been one that has proved difficult to dislodge.

This was a view that infused parts of the Manchester Independent Economic Review (MIER). Prepared in 2008-09 at a reputed cost of some £1m [5] the MIER set out to sketch the city-region’s economic destiny, as seen through a series of commissioned position statements prepared by local and external experts. An LSE submission on agglomeration economies, for example, argued in robust terms that planning impeded growth. Whilst the final MIER report and recommendations acknowledged that “Manchester has a record of effective planning policies, with a high degree of co-ordination,” much of the remainder of the report talked of the need to change planning fundamentally to accord to market needs.

The MIER constituted an important part of the background against which Manchester’s newly approved Core Strategy was prepared. It set out in powerful terms the case for strengthened city-regional governance, but exemplified longstanding agnosticism about the potential role for planning in shaping Manchester’s future. Viewed in that context, the bold and expansive vision set out in the Core Strategy, and the high profile accorded to it by the city’s leaders, signals a welcome – if belated – re-embrace of planning.

The leader writer of the Manchester Evening News (19 June 2012, p.8) captures the significance of the document well:

“The plan includes many ideas that should impact on the lives of ordinary Mancunians. If there is one persistent criticism of the redevelopment of the city in recent times, it is that the positive effects have not always been felt across Manchester. There are parts of this city still characterised by deep deprivation. The benefits of a bustling city centre have not been shared as widely as they should have been. Rightly, this plan looks to address this.”

We couldn’t have put it better ourselves – so welcome and good luck Core Strategy on your adoption. We wish you well.

Related Post: Andreas Schulze Bäing and  Jenni Viitanen “The Manchester Core Strategy development process – could it have been more public?”

Twitter: Nicola Headlam @networknicola, Iain Deas @iaindeas

[1] Manchester Evening News 19th June 2012. See also http://menmedia.co.uk/manchestereveningnews/news/s/1581573_masterplan-to-take-manchester-into-the-future and the lively debate in the blog that accompanies the on-line version.

[2] See e.g. Peck, J. and Ward, K. (eds.) (2002) City of revolution: restructuring Manchester, Manchester: Manchester University Press

[3] Kitchen, Ted (1997) People, Politics, Policies and Plans, Paul Chapman Press, London.

[4] Hebbert M (2010) Manchester: making it happen, in J Punter (ed) Urban Design and the British Urban Renaissance, pp.51-67, Routledge, London.

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.


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.



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.

Who runs cities in the twenty first century?

Who owns your city?  The buildings in which you work, the apartments in which your friends live, the bars to which you flock after work on a Friday evening, the gym at which your partner works out on Monday and Wednesday: these are elements of the built environment, and while establishing who owns them might once have been straightforward, it is not now.  The inflow into English cities of significant amounts of capital investment during the 1990s and 2000s has produced a complex patchwork quilt of owners. From local and regional developers to international pension fund investors, the ownership of your city involves people making decisions around the world on practical issues that matter, from the mixed use of land to the accessing of buildings, from their external design to their environmental sustainability.  Less obviously, but as importantly, who owns the city shapes the way a city looks and feels.  It matters to those who call the city home.

If establishing who owns your city is not straightforward, neither is identifying who governs it. A range of government programmes such as urban regeneration companies, local strategic partnerships, business led initiatives, and city mayors have complicated matters. It is now hard to identify exactly who it is that is making decisions over the future of your city and where these decisions are being made. While local government continues to be centrally involved in the governance of cities, a range of other stakeholders with varying geographical remits, also have a part to play. Under the coalition government the last year has seen a return to the language of the 1980s, when local government and other public sector bodies were talked about as ‘enablers’ and ‘facilitators’. Bound up with the notion of ‘Big Society’ is a devolving of power down to local communities. Not without precedent, this most recent shift in policy only serves to make answering who governs your city a less straightforward question to answer.  Yet, who governs the city shapes the way a city looks and feels. It matters to those who call the city home.

Taken in tandem, who owns and governs the city should matter to all of us who live and work in cities. Together they lie behind the very profound question over who runs cities.  Answering this question is what this proposed project will do, if funded.  Using the cities of Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle, this project’s over-arching aim is to use a comparative analysis to explore who owns and governs English cities, and in what ways. It will be specifically interested in governance and ownership issues in relation to economic development, broadly defined. Using a combination of existing data sets and semi-structured interviews, this project will ask and answer the following four questions. First, how and why have ownership patterns changed in the three cities in the last 30 years? Second, how and why have governance structures changed in the three cities in the last 30 years? Third, what are the connections between ownership and governance patterns in the three cities? Fourth, and finally, in what ways do these changes make the three cities better placed to face current and future challenges?

Of course, in the current funding climate, with success rates low, this project may never be carried out, which would be a great shame!