To bridge England’s productivity gap, the government should plan the north’s housing and transport together

Houses and bicycles in Hulme, Greater Manchester. Image: Getty.

At a meeting with the Northern Metro Mayors last year, chancellor Philip Hammond said that increasing productivity in the north of England is vital to the government’s plans to boost economic growth.

The scale of that productivity challenge is vast. According to an excellent report from the Centre for Cities, cities in the South East of England are a whopping 44 per cent more productive than cities in other parts of the country. The think tank estimates that, if all British cities were as productive as those in the South East, the national economy would be over £200bn larger. 

To boost productivity levels across Britain, regions need to be able to attract and maintain the kind of highly skilled talent which companies seek when choosing where to set up their operating base. A recent Homes for the North report found that over the past decade 300,000 highly skilled workers had left the north. Retaining this talent will require both better transport links and more quality and affordable homes. The challenge is enormous. 

To be fair to the government, the aim of its modern industrial strategy is to tackle the productivity problem over the next 30 years, ensuring that all parts of Britain can participate in and prosper in what policy wonks have termed “the fourth industrial revolution” – the labour market of the future. 

While the fruits of this industrial strategy will not be felt immediately, the government has made some other encouraging moves which could help attract investment and talent to the north. 

The decision to establish combined authorities and regional mayors to allow local councils to pool responsibilities and receive specific functions from central government means locally elected and accountable leaders, not Whitehall, will be responsible for more decisions over housing and transport investment. 

It is also good news that Transport for the North (TfN) will become a statutory body. TfN is a true pan northern organisation which can help identify the infrastructure priorities that the region wants and needs. The government’s decision to create a sub-national transport body is welcome – although it does need budget responsibilities to be truly transformational.

Research from the Mace demonstrates the opportunities that TfN could grasp to deliver real economic growth across the north. The construction consultancy found that reducing average journey times by 60 seconds across the north of England could lead to £1bn a year extra in productivity gains. 

However, when it comes to housing in the north the picture is less rosy. While the Prime Minister has clearly made housing a political and economic priority, recent moves by the Government risk undermining the housebuilding efforts across the north.

The reason for this can be traced to a set of proposed changes the government put forward before Christmas on how local councils assess future housing need. The aim was to exert pressure on local authorities to increase the number of new homes they plan to build. Unfortunately the draft methodology is flawed. It focuses on councils using a new, backwards-looking methodology based on growth assumptions which reflect today’s problems rather than tomorrow’s aspirations.


Councils are not required to plan housing to match their plans for economic growth. Instead the new numbers will only require them to plan in accordance with what is in effect historic trends. If this seems counter-intuitive, hostile to aspiration and growth, it is because it is. As a result, thousands of homes have been shaved off local benchmarks in the north. The proposed changes effectively amount to an anti-northern bias and a potential cap on economic growth across the north. Common sense must prevail.

New quality housing for rent and for purchase – hand in hand with an upgraded transport system – could act as an economic boon to the northern economy. However, infrastructure investment is currently viewed in silos. Decisions over new or upgraded road and rail routes have to be made in conjunction with an assessment of how many new homes should be built as demand increases. Quite simply, if the necessary homes do not follow, there is a danger that infrastructure investment will be squandered. 

Improving infrastructure across the north could truly unleash the Northern Powerhouse. The further devolution of powers is vital. So too is unlocking the purse strings and giving local leaders the funding they require. Finally, the north needs a sub-national coordinating body – whether under the auspices of TfN or something else – which can deliver a coherent plan to deliver the investment we need in our railways and roads, energy infrastructure, as well the hundreds of thousands of new homes the region requires over the coming decades. 

If the chancellor seizes this agenda then the government’s industrial strategy really could work in the interests of the north.

Mark Henderson is chair of Homes for the North.

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Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.

 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.


There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.