The cities of southern England are undergoing a population boom

Milton Keynes: filling up. Image: Google.

Today, the Centre for Cities publishes the latest instalment of its annual Cities Outlook report. It drills down into the performance of Britain’s 64 largest cities over the last decade: a time of boom, bust, recovery and two governments of three different colours. 

One of the primary indicators we use for measuring the success of a city’s economy is population growth – and the story we see during this time is rather alarming, if not entirely surprising.

Over the decade to 2013, cities in the South grew at double the rate of cities elsewhere in the UK. Combined, the cities of the South had 11.3 per cent more people living in them in 2013 than in 2004, compared to 5.5 per cent for cities elsewhere in the UK. 

Click to expand. Source: Cities Outlook 2015.

Milton Keynes, Peterborough and Swindon were the top performers on population growth, experiencing increases at double the rate of the national average. But while their performance was very similar on this measure, there were interesting differences between the cities when looking at other markers of economic performance.

Milton Keynes is the stand-out performer on most of the fundamentals. Its strong population growth – it had 36,000 more people living in the city in 2013 compared to 2004 – has been matched by a large increase in the number of businesses and jobs in the city. Its overall jobs growth of 18 per cent makes it the fastest expanding city over the last decade. The challenge for the city over the next decade is to continue to support the economy with its pro-growth attitude, making sure that the rise in population is matched with a rise in new homes.


You can see an opposing trend at work in Swindon. While there was a large increase in the number of businesses to match the increase in its population, it had fewer jobs in 2013 than it did in 2004, seeing a decline of around 7,000 posts. 

Two things appear to be happening here. Firstly, Swindon’s economy appears to be shifting rapidly to a greater focus on small and medium-sized businesses; it’s a trend which follows the closure of larger businesses such as Woolworths, which had a distribution centre in the city. 

This means that the loss of one big firm employing thousands has been replaced by a host of small start-ups, employing only a handful at a time. In this respect, Cities Outlook 2015 captures Swindon at a time when it is undergoing a structural change in its economy – one that reflects many of the bigger, global macro-economic trends starting to take hold across much of the nation. 

But the discrepancy between population growth and declining jobs numbers can also be explained by its growing appeal as a residential destination. An increasing number of people are choosing to live in Swindon, where house prices are more affordable than in neighbouring areas, but commute out to work elsewhere. 

The main beneficiaries of this have been the rest of Wiltshire and nearby places like Winchester. The challenge for Swindon is to support future job creation, particularly in its city centre, to increase the job opportunities available to its residents.

Peterborough falls somewhere in the middle. While the city has seen its number of jobs increase over the last decade by four per cent, these jobs have tended to be in lower skilled fields than those created in Milton Keynes. The challenge for Peterborough is to build on the success of the last 10 years by encouraging growth in higher-skilled, higher-paying industries, to widen the choice of jobs available in the city.

Even in cities that have seen very similar increases in their populations, the challenges that each face in growing their economies in the future are very different. This is why the recent announcement of devolution to Greater Manchester is so important – cities face very unique challenges that are best addressed by tailoring policy to these needs. 

The clear mission of the next government must be to extend devolution to other places, allowing them to tackle the things that constrain their growth and to play an even bigger role in the national economy.

Paul Swinney is senior economist at the Centre for Cities.

 
 
 
 

Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.


…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.