September 24, 2008

Fyson On… A Northern Regeneration Hypothesis That Fails to Respond to a Changing Economic Environment

By Fyson, Anthony

It is wonderful how thoughtless think-tanks can be. The latest effusion from the right-wing Policy Exchange is admirable only for trying to make a free-market assessment of the prospects for northern cities without concession to Conservative electoral interests. The trouble for Tory leader David Cameron arises not just because the report's conclusion that these cities have little hope of regeneration is damaging to his party's chances in marginal urban constituencies. The argument is also critically flawed in analysis and policy prescription and harks back to a more fundamentalist era in the party's life.

Of course, urban regeneration has not progressed as far and as fast as hoped. Cities with economies based on ageing ports, closed coal mines and defunct mills face difficult times, shiny new central areas notwithstanding. But they are still eminently able to host the footloose industries of the knowledge economy. Denying them that opportunity and encouraging their existing populations to flood south to fill similar jobs is an antisocial and environmentally damaging proposal.

Three points seem to have eluded the authors of Cities Unlimited. First, the new information and financial services are not subject to the same geographical constraints that shipping, mining and cotton spinning once were. Investing in the northern cities makes more sense than piling jobs into the already crowded South East.

Second, the quality of the northern environment consistently rates higher than the south in opinion surveys, so the number of willing migrants is arguably far smaller than a London-centred view might suppose.

Finally, the disruptive prescription that whole northern populations should get on their bikes in search of greener pastures ignores the damage that would be done to the abandoned residual communities and to those already established at their destinations. In the unplanned free-for-all envisaged, macro-economic machismo allows no consideration of the contentment and continuity of individual lives or the quality, character and history of places.

Picking out the already beleaguered Oxford, Cambridge and London for unfettered expansion while places further north experience steepening decline add up to a peculiarly masochistic policy for politicians from both sides of the Tees-Exe line.

The message has been roundly rejected by all parties and will doubtless sink into the obscurity reserved for August lunacies, which oddly enough must have been its publisher's intention. They don't call it the silly season for nothing.

"Encouraging populations to flood south is an antisocial and environmentally damaging proposal

Anthony Fyson is a freelance writer on planning issues.

Copyright Haymarket Business Publications Ltd. Aug 22, 2008

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