Tag Archives: Regionalism

Planning for housing: from the straight jacket to the earthquake approach

by Cecilia Wong, Professor of Spatial Planning, Executive Director of the Centre for Urban Policy Studies

The Localism Bill published before Christmas 2010 was and is still beyond belief to many planning professionals. Many ideas in the document are at best half baked (e.g. the use of neighbourhood plans to increase housing supply) if not totally dodgy (e.g. auctioning local government land with planning permission). DCLG seems reasonably happy to make things up as it goes along, so the amendments to the Bill in May are thicker than the original version. While Ministers urge local government to get on with their Local Development Framework, the reality is that no one is certain whether the dust has settled down yet to avoid wasting the already dwindling human resources. The atmosphere of very shaky policy changes, funding cuts and job losses in the planning community is deadly but also surreal, just like the aftermath of a Richter scale 8 earthquake.

In the early-mid 1990s, British planning was slowly re-emerging from the market-oriented legacy of the Thatcher era and regional planning was back on the agenda. Local concerns over the perceived inexorable spread of new housing development to greenfield land and the consequent impacts on the environment had increased pressure on central government to move away from the ad hoc market-led approach of planning. Such concerns were mirrored by growing numbers of developers who were also worried that the absence of more strategic, regional strategy-making would lead to insufficient provision of land required for future development because local authorities were increasingly subject to the growing pressure of local NIMBYism. The Blair-Brown Labour government saw various experiments to uplift regional and sub-regional spatial strategy-making into a more prominent position, but after a decade’s experiment, the outcome is rather patchy.

Reflecting back over the last decade, both planning and regeneration were preoccupied with brownfield housing redevelopment policy by stipulating the national target of 60% of new housing to be built on previously developed land (PDL) to curb urban sprawl and foster the urban renaissance agenda. The government adopted a straight jacket approach of using targets and performance measures to establish policy frameworks and manage local and regional delivery. While the Government’s brownfield housing target has been met consistently since 2000, the actual amount of brownfield land used for residential purposes during 2000-06 (2774 ha per annum) was only marginally higher than that achieved throughout the period 1989-98 (2644 ha per annum). The meeting of the brownfield target was ironically a function of a parallel decrease in the use of greenfield land as well as a rapid increase in housing density (from 25 dwellings/ha in 1996 to 45 in 2007). However, our research for the Homes and Communities Agency and Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that there has been an increase in the proportion of brownfield land used for housing in the most deprived neighbourhoods. Indeed, housing reuse increased most rapidly in the 10% most deprived neighbourhoods in England, even in areas with long term vacant and derelict land. The market for flats in particular has grown since the mid 2000s.

Brownfield reuse policy has helped to bring residents back into the most deprived neighbourhoods, injecting dynamics into the housing market, and reducing the relative ranking of economic deprivation in these areas. However, this new housing has also altered the socio-economic dynamics of these neighbourhoods. Signs of policy success can also be interpreted as a function of how the housing market interacts with more general policy frameworks, with developers choosing areas with more favourable development potential for major brownfield reuse activities. The vice of including gardens as PDL has the unexpected outcome of garden grabbing as well as major rebuild in millionaire locations such as Prestbury. Driving around the beautiful wooded lanes around Prestbury, there is either a crane inside the plot or a wacking new great mansion already standing in it.

One does need to question whether a blanket national brownfield target, with a very broad brush definition, continues to be a meaningful policy instrument. There is also a need for more nuanced and contextualised approaches to take into account local circumstances. More importantly, we need to find out who are those new residents moving into the new high rise apartments (hopefully, 2011 Census data will keep us busy) and how they change the dynamics of those areas. In theory, the emphasis on localism is a good thing because it strips away the top-down bureaucracy and devolves power, resources and knowledge. In reality, the Localism Bill simply crossed out the words of ‘strategic’, ‘regions’ and ‘targets’; what’s left are ‘spatial’ and ‘landuse’ and, following the publication of the National Planning Policy Framework, ‘spatial’ seems to vanish as well – this begs the question of who is doing the coordination and management of planning for housing. The answer announced is the ‘neighbourhood plans’. However, this was not well thought through and more and more different interpretations are dripping through over the last few months. The Coalition government forgets that the communities within these neighbourhoods are not in a single voice and democracy does not mean a consensual view and that a lack of coordination is not the same as innovation.

The prospect for planning for housing over the next few years is likely to be uncertain and patchy. The differential capacity of communities means that some will achieve success, but some will be vulnerable and subject to manipulation by those with major financial resources and knowledge. It may shake the confidence of investment as developers do not like uncertainty. More importantly, the whole idea undermines professional knowledge and input, though now the government argues that the local authority has to provide such inputs without thinking where the resources come from when a quarter of the planners have lost their jobs.

We used to have a jigsaw puzzle of nine regional pieces to do strategic planning. In order to heighten the challenge, the puzzle has been subject to an earthquake and was shattered into little pieces. Good luck and have fun in putting this puzzle back together – the likelihood is that we will have a very patchy picture with lots of gaps and uncertainty.


Wong, C and Schulze Baing, A (2010) Brownfield residential redevelopment in England: What happens to the most deprived neighbourhoods? Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Bristol: Policy Press

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.

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.