Can better planning fix the problems that led to Brexit?

The Kings Square Estate. Image: Pollard Thomas Edwards.

With so much government energy and resources devoted to hammering out the UK’s future with the EU, and with the call of a second referendum ringing louder by the day, one has to ask: what is being done to address those issues that has led to Brexit in the first place? 

There has been plenty of analysis about why people voted to leave the European Union. Whatever the reason, the Brexit vote confirmed how far we are from being one nation. It signifies deep-seated social and economic difficulties experienced by people up and down the country.

Could this political outcome in fact be the result of our collective failure to invest in the proper planning of places that benefit people and create prosperity in the long term? At the Royal Town Planning Institute, we’d argue that it is: 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 the result of 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 is far from abstract. Town planning was created to mitigate poverty, inequality, disease and the resultant disillusionment of communities. Whatever deal we are to strike with the EU is not going to solve these problems without investment in place-making.

If Theresa May’s government is serious about building one nation, starting with the divisions so clearly brought to the surface by the Brexit vote, then this means a country that is planned properly.

It means, firstly, stronger strategic planning so that cities and regions benefit from more coordinated investment. It also means, secondly, stronger planning at the local level.

The finalists of this year’s Awards for Planning Excellence – announced on Monday – is a celebration of what good local planning can do. The projects are being created and implemented by Britain's planners, to deliver better places with obvious improvements to our health, well-being, economic security and housing.


Building more houses

How does a 2,500 home (40 per cent of them affordable) mixed-use development near Cambridge with improved access to the countryside, two new schools and health facilities and a new park around an adjacent creek to improve biodiversity sound? Impossible? Well, it’s half completed and helping address the housing shortage in the area.

Similarly – albeit on a much smaller scale – four new homes have been built following the transformation of a semi-derelict kennel and cattery in the green belt near Chertsey, Runnymede. The environmentally friendly homes have carbon emissions 10 per cent lower than regular homes, and, through clever design, have reduced the building footprint on the site – situated in the green belt – by 40 per cent.

Or what about the scheme by one local authority in London which has seen 28 new homes built across four scattered brownfield sites?

Jobs, jobs, jobs

Job insecurity is a problem across Britain – not just in the areas that voted predominately to leave. The redevelopment of the declining Bracknell Town Centre – being led by planners – is a £240m project delivering new shopping, dining and leisure facilities and 3,500 new jobs.

Meanwhile, a plan to develop a major new economic hub around Birmingham airport and international train station identifies infrastructure needs and design principles to support up to 77,500 jobs and 4000 new homes.

Improving health and wellbeing

Where you live plays a major role in health and well-being. Earlier this year, Public Health England released data showing life expectancy had gone backwards in some parts of the country.

But across the UK there are examples of attempts to tackle this. A farm classroom in South Somerset teaches school children about healthy eating, while ‘Healthy Places, Healthy Children’ in Belfast is a teaching resource introducing children to help them share their ideas on how to make neighbourhoods more healthy and child friendly. These are ideas that could be rolled out elsewhere.

Regenerating declining towns and cities

Estate regeneration is often associated with local opposition and the loss of affordable homes. However, if done properly can be welcomed by the residents.

The King’s Square estate in Islington, London, being regenerated by a partnership between the local authority, residents, designers and planners. They are working pro-actively together to develop brownfield land into 140 new affordable homes adjacent to the estate. It includes an upgrade to the public spaces and new community facilities including a refurbished nursery and primary school.

At the town level, the planners in Stromness have led an inter-departmental council task force to transform the declining town centre through the redevelopment of key buildings, sites and facilities. Importantly, the community helped shape the project from start to finish resulting in a renewed sense of civic pride.

Similarly in Porthcawl, West Wales, the transformation of a former 1800s tram terminal, known as ‘The Jennings’, into a mixed-use scheme, including cafes and live/work spaces, has acted as a catalyst for the regeneration of the wider area.

There is cause to be optimistic about our future post Brexit – and planners are leading the way.

Joshua Rule is public affairs officer at the Royal Town Planning Institute.

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook