Had i really been asleep for that long? Was it April 1st 2009 already? As i woke up this morning bleary eyed and switched on the news i could have been forgiven for thinking it was April Fool’s Day. The BBC had me momentarily fooled on April 1st 2008 with their footage of flying penguins (‘Wow flying penguins thats amazing…wait surely that can’t be right…ah yes its April fools day, good one BBC!’) and this morning i had exactly the same feeling when i heard the Policy Exchange’s proposals for regeneration in the UK. The only difference was this was no joke and it turned out that the only fools were the authors of their report released today entitled ‘Cities Unlimited: Making urban regeneration work’. Let me explain.
I think we can all agree that urban regeneration in UK cities has been a double edged sword and that whilst some areas/communities/residents have benefited others have not which has led to increasing inequality and relative poverty. What we need is a more inclusive regeneration strategy as regeneration attempts over the last few decades have not resulted in the trickle down development contained in the rhetoric. We need to find ways of delivering regeneration strategies that produce good sustainable employment with living wages, provide deprived communities with much needed improvements in service infrastructure and which include local residents at each stage in the consultation process. We are getting there but slowly – these things take time, there is no simple solution or so we thought. Enter the Policy Exchange people.
The Policy Exhange is an independent right wing think tank which has close ties with the Conservative Party. So what is their solution to the complex issue of the regeneration of UK cities, particularly in the North: people in Northern cities which are ‘beyond revival’ like Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Sunderland and Bradford should move to ‘the hubs of the twenty-first century’, namely Cambridge, Oxford and London to stop them becoming trapped in poorer areas and because these places have a better prospect of offering them the standards of living to which they aspire. What?
The basic premise of the Policy Exchange’s report is that we need to think about alternative regeneration policies given that billions of pounds has been spent on regeneration in these (and other) places but they show little sign of improvement on a range of inequality and deprivation indicators. The solution, according to the Policy Exchange, is to relax planning laws in the South East and allow these cities to grow outwards to accomodate a migration of people from ‘failing’ Northern towns and cities. For those who are old enough this may sound vaguely familiar. Thats right it takes us back to the days of Norman Tebbit when he told people in the North to ‘get on their bikes’. This Policy Exchange report suggests a similar course of action for people living in Northern towns and cities who ‘have lost their raison d’etre’ because of decline in shipping and manufacturing in these places.
There are however a couple of sticking points: (i) people are not economic units that can just move around at will; (ii) the South East is already overheated and overpopulated without hundreds of thousands of Northerners descending upon it; (iii) there have been successes on the ground in Northern cities such as Manchester and Liverpool which we can learn from; (iv) there has already been furore about green belt development in the South regarding developments on a much smaller scale than the one proposed; and (v) things are a lot more complex than suggesting that Northerners would be better off moving South and that Northern areas would benefit from a reduced population. In fact just saying it out loud sounds ridiculous or to quote Peter Kilfoyle the MP for Liverpool Walton its ‘bizarre’ and ‘unrealistic’. In sum this idea may work if it wasn’t for the sheer political, economic, social and environmental infeasibility of it all.
Let’s be clear, moving to the South is no panacea to improving people’s lives – they have poor people in the South too don’t you know. But seriously this report goes to show how fixated those on the right still are with the South East at the expense of Northern towns and cities which this report implicitly suggests we should give up on. Presumably by this logic those that remain poor in the North are to blame for not having the foresight or ambition to move South. Once again this blame the victim approach sounds eerily familiar but maybe, just maybe, rather than it being a case of people, towns and cities in Northern cities having failed maybe politicians on both the political Left and Right have for too long failed the people, towns and cities of the North. Thatcherism is alive and well and for me it sounds a warning about whether the recent emergence of compassionate Conservatism is not simply a wolf in sheeps clothing. Yes Cameron has come out and branded the findings ‘insane’ but it shows that old Tory ideals are still influential to some on the Right and this from a think tank which has close ties to those in the Shadow Cabinet. It will be interesting to hear how other key Conservative figures respond to this report. In the meantime my suitcase is staying firmly in my Northern wardrobe!