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Does England need an urban policy?

Posted by: and , Posted on: - Categories: Governance

Guest post by Corinne Swain and Peter Hetherington.

Hanley City From Glebe Hill in Fenton (credit: Mike Shields/CC BY-SA 2.0)

As city devolution gathers momentum, is it time to ask how all the pieces fit together. What governance capacities are required, how does planning fit in, what roles should the state fulfil?

These are some of the questions pondered at a recent workshop between the Future of Cities lead experts and an urban task group of the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA). The workshop revealed several points of connection in thinking about the challenges and opportunities facing Britain's cities in the long-term future, not least in the usefulness of scenarios.

The TCPA task group's 4 scenarios were presented as being deliberately exaggerated, but not mutually exclusive when it came to drawing out implications for policy. The scenario that has provoked the most debate was called ‘managing places without growth’. It recognises growing problems across many older urban areas and seaside towns that are disadvantaged through location, quality of environment or profile to compete in the knowledge-based economy. Indeed a recent warning bell was sounded with the release of data showing a widening gap in educational standards in so-called satellite towns to major Northern cities, and similar warnings have been raised on health indicators.

This raises politically difficult questions about how such places will ‘earn their living’, and have the resource base to meet their needs, in a future of devolved responsibilities. But perhaps such a scenario should be discussed more openly, and ways found to rebuild local government capacities perhaps through Urban Regeneration Companies or a new regeneration fund, as well as improving accessibility to places with stronger economies. Indeed, is there a case for a highly focused state agency to drive this – English Partnerships reborn?

Other insights from this scenarios thinking were:

  • the vulnerability of London from continuing growth pressures, extreme weather events or geo-political factors
  • the scope for new vehicles such as Local Investment Corporations to capture land value increase and maximise the growth potential of smaller cities
  • the contribution that the West and East Midlands can make to the development of a Northern mega-region, but also acting as a 'safety valve' for housing pressures in the London mega-region
  • the benefits of strengthening the role of Combined Authorities in strategic planning, implementation and the distribution of resources, eg through a new generation of City Region Development Corporations

A more general conclusion to emerge from these scenarios is that possible implications for different types of towns and cities should be considered much earlier and more explicitly in the national policy evolution cycle, whether this relates to the economy, welfare reform, education, social or environmental policy.

So, should England have an 'urban policy'?

'Urban policy' conjures up different things to different people. To some, it is a throwback to targeted regeneration policies, to others it is about how cities can be empowered to maximise their contribution to national prosperity. Yet again, given that England is so highly urbanised, one could argue that there is no such thing as urban policy. Professor Alan Harding in his Foresight Future of Cities working paper argues for more transparent recognition of what he terms ‘implicit urban policy’, namely that mainstream policies often have very uneven geographic impacts.

The TCPA task team identified 6 points that might inform future urban policy discussions:

  • London's future growth must be based on realistic assumptions about capacity and resources
  • the significant economic potential of small and medium-sized cities should be recognised
  • there should be sustained support for a ‘northern and regional tilt’
  • some places may have to shrink, but they should not be abandoned
  • there should be an urban policy lead from central government
  • city regional governance should be focused on the new Combined Authorities

Further details of the evidence and underlying thinking that led to these headline points is contained in a collection of papers published in Town and Country Planning, Vol 84, No 8, August 2015. The task group's discussion paper is available from the TCPA on request.

Featured image - Copyright Mike Shields and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

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  1. Comment by David Wilde posted on

    How about a policy on smart working and living? People don't need to travel to and from work 5 days a week any more!

  2. Comment by Andres Coca-Stefaniak posted on

    Yes, the place management community has also been discussing for a while the challenge of "managing decline" in certain town centres. It would be useful to see retail scenarios for town and city centres mapped against the urban scenarios developed by the TCPA. here