Place-making sounds woolly – but it’s the key to fixing a divided Britain

Liverpool's Albert Docks: a place, that someone made. Image: Getty.

The Royal Town Planning Institute on why we need more, well, planning.

The Brexit vote confirmed how far we are from being one nation. A recent survey revealed that Leave voters were more likely to live in areas with very low levels of migration, indicating that locals were experiencing other, much deeper-seated social and economic difficulties.

Could the referendum result in fact be the outcome of our collective failure to invest in the proper planning of places that benefit people and create prosperity in the long term? We'd argue that it's so.

Lack of housing, public services, jobs, social cohesion, and a sense in these communities that they and their voices don’t matter, are the real problems facing Britain today.

Place-making might sound woolly. But our long-running failure to consciously design and invest in communities in ways that build on their potential and promote people's health, happiness, and well being has produced results that are far from abstract: poverty, inequality, disease and disillusionment.

So why have we lost the ability to make places?

In large part it's because we’ve pushed planning into a smaller and smaller box, the result of a desire - to quote the former prime minister – to “[get] the planners off our backs”.

Ground down by almost continual changes to planning policy and regulations, severely underfunded and under-supported, relentlessly characterised as the problem’, some planners have inevitably become what they have been caricatured as: followers of process, rather than purposeful public servants.

In a new report publised today, the Royal Town Planning Institute finds that in England in particular, these changes are producing a planning system that is more complicated and more uncertain. It's a system that produces 
less decision making, consultation and accountability; a reduced ability to ensure that development is well planned and connected; and a narrower range of affordable housing to rent or buy (irrespective of local need) - all without addressing the significant under-resourcing of local planning authorities.

Not only are these changes not solving the housing crisis: they are having the detrimental effect of creating disjointed communities, poorly served by transport and other facilities with no easy access to jobs and economic opportunities. 

This does not have to be the case. In some developments – Norwich, Birmingham and Northampton local planners are performing a leading and strategic role in making places work, striking creative partnerships with developers, designers and architects.

But we need many more of them.

Some commentators bemoan that local authorities already have the powers they need to promote more and better development, and that they are largely to blame for the housing crisis. This ignores that 30 years of deregulatory planning changes have undeniably stripped local authorities of their powers to plan.

Such commentators also compare the UK unfavourably with some continental European countries. They rarely realise that European local authorities often take the leading role in acquiring and assembling sites and making them viable for development -- including through developing sites themselves.

There is now an emerging consensus that councils should again build and own homes themselves, in the belated recognition that private development won’t meet demand. This makes place-making through sensitive high-quality design, master-planning and regeneration an even more urgent and important core local competence.

Moreover, now is the time where more active local authorities could inject confidence and certainty into a nervous private development market. This means using local authorities’ combined local planning, economic development and devolved powers to guide private sector investment and keep up the momentum for building.

We’ll see over the next few months whether Theresa May’s government adopts a broader approach to resolving the housing crisis, more akin to the one proposed by the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee’s recent report.

If it does, public sector-led place-making needs to be at its centre, and act as the foundation stone of a truly one nation housing policy. And for planners to take centre stage to lead and operate strategically, they should be properly supported and valued.

Dr Michael Harris is deputy director of policy and research at the Royal Town Planning Institute.

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Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image:

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.