To solve the productivity puzzle, we need to talk about place

Mmmmm advanced manufacturing. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Last week the CBI raised concerns that Britain does not spend enough on research and development to boost its flagging productivity. It found that, at current spending levels, the country will not meet its target until 2053.

It is right to be concerned about this, but too much focus on overall levels of R&D funding risks overlooking the importance of turning it from an abstract national concept into a policy with tangible benefits for people, firms and places across the country, not just in existing research hubs such as London and Cambridge.

A greater focus on “making innovation real” is important because technological innovation does not happen in a vacuum. It happens in places, and understanding the role that “place” plays not just as the location for innovation but also as the integrator of the various other inputs – skills, firms, research & development infrastructure – will be central to boosting the UK’s economic performance in the future and should be a core focus for the government’s Industrial Strategy.

The Sheffield City Region’s Advanced Manufacturing Park is a good example of the significance of “place as integrator”. It brings academic, government and business partners together in one place to develop new products, services and ways of working. It has been at the vanguard of shifting the city region from a place of mass manufacturing towards a place that is home to cutting edge technological research and development. Once perfected, the research is shared with places and firms not just in the city region but across the country in production centres like Airbus in Broughton in North Wales and Rolls-Royce in Sunderland, and indeed across the world.

The AMP is testament to what can be achieved when local and national interests understand the importance of working together. But it would have been unlikely to have been established at all if decision makers – private, public, and academic – had not had the foresight and appetite for risk to see the transformative effect that targeted R&D spending in a place such as Sheffield City Region could have.

The experience of the AMP tells us, that to boost productivity and deliver an effective Industrial Strategy, “place” must be front and the centre of the policy development process.

Ensuring that the jobs and skills development opportunities meet the current and future needs of firms requires a place based approach. Whitehall is too remote to meet this requirement, and local actors are much better placed to fix local problems. For instance, the AMP has been the site of a training scheme where over 1,000 apprentices have worked and received engineering qualifications on the site. This has worked because firms, local government and skills providers pool their knowledge about what is required and organise delivery to meet those needs. To repeat this success in other places, government should complete the devolution of the Adult Education Budget to the metro mayors and empower local leaders to find local solutions to their own skills challenges.

The government should also maximise the benefits of R&D spending by encouraging knowledge sharing between researchers and companies. Encouraging the take-up of patent-free research, as was done at Sheffield City Region Advanced Manufacturing Park, was a major factor in ensuring that the economic benefits associated with R&D were felt both in the immediate locality and across the country.

Having a high national R&D target is critical, particularly given our lamentable performance over the last few decades. Meeting such a target will be challenge. But an even bigger challenge will be ensuring that an increase in R&D funding delivers benefits for people across more of the country.

A greater role for place is vital because it enables us to coordinate policies, from taxation to skills and infrastructure at the level which can deliver tangible economic benefits for people. Leadership from cities is crucial to build the high-skilled, high-paying economy that will boost productivity, and ultimately raise national and local living standards.

Andrew Carter is Chief Executive of Centre for Cities.


Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.

So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.