Why we need a plan to tackle the UK’s stark regional inequalities

Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, identified as one of the poorest regions in Western Europe.

Compared to other European countries, inequalities between and within cities and regions in the UK are stark. They are typically blamed on the faster growth of London and the South and slower growth of the North. But London itself is a highly unequal city.

There is a growing consensus that we need to tackle these regional inequalities and address the years of decline across areas of Britain that have been left behind or forgotten. We need to ensure that such places are firmly on the policy agenda in a way that they cannot be forgotten.

The uneven impacts of the global financial crisis and austerity have recently exacerbated longstanding regional inequalities. At the heart of these inequalities is the UK’s shift from a manufacturing to a service economy. The growth of financial services, enabled by market deregulation, was key to this process. Today, much of London’s wealth resides in land and housing; this contributes to inequalities as inflated asset prices aggravate the housing crisis.

But market processes are not the only cause of regional inequalities; they also result from public investment decisions and entrenched political processes that favour some places over others.

London and the south east have benefitted from infrastructure investment that is often justified through cost-benefit analyses and arguments that such investments are necessary to secure London’s economic success. Public investment in London has underpinned an economic model where gains have been unequally shared.

The political and economic model that has shaped this landscape is broken in at least two respects. First, growing congestion, pollution and pressures on public services in London is reflected in a slowing rate of economic growth, declining in-migration, and people leaving for other parts of the UK (some of these trends can be seen in other big cities.)

Second, there is growing concern about acute social and economic problems in places excluded from the UK’s growth model. These are places most affected by the decline of traditional industries and, in some cases, are the sites of  deprivation. The Brexit referendum gave expression to these economic divides.

Market forces alone cannot solve regional problems. In some important respects, market forces are actually contributing factors that create regional inequalities in the first place. The dysfunctional housing market, for example, rewards existing owners of land and property, inflating the value of their assets and distorting economic decision making.

To invest in services and infrastructure, protect the environment and encourage enterprising and housebuilding, we need effective land use – this, in turn, requires local and regional governments to coordinate and intervene.

Effective land use requires radical thinking, decentralisation and devolution, a supportive fiscal framework, and institutions that reflect local and regional identities and attachments. Recent policy agendas have focused on functional urban regions and new forms of metropolitan governance, such as Metro mayors.

While these have their place in a national framework, we need more flexible and imaginative geographies than top-down, one-sized fits all approaches. Devolution without real power and resources is a recipe for widening inequalities. 

Inequalities within cities and regions can be as significant as inequalities between regions. The UK’s unequal landscape demands different responses in different places.

Rather than imposing solutions from outside, communities affected must have a stake in shaping responses. We need to examine the relationships between different parts of the country, especially that between London and other regions, to deliver a sustainable and equitable future for the UK.

The limits of urban regeneration based on real estate are apparent in the shiny developments that surround declining towns and villages. To tackle inequality, we need new approaches to local economic development, such as the “foundational economy” and asset-based community development that are aimed at meeting social needs rather than simply increasing returns to developers.

A key challenge will be recouping the unearned gains that have accrued because of rising land values to generate the resources that are necessary for creating a vibrant local economy.

Policy makers have often understood regional inequality in terms of growth, efficiency, costs and benefits. It’s essential to introduce a moral dimension to this framework and define the appropriate goals of economic policy. The scale of inequalities in our society is unacceptable and lies at the root of many political problems. Planning and planners need to be at the heart of the search for solutions. 

Alasdair Rae is a professor of Urban Planning at the University of Sheffield. Ceclia Wong is a professor of Spatial Planning at the University of Manchester. John Tomaney is professor of Urban and Regional Planning in the Bartlett School of Planning, University College London.

They are all participating in the UK2070 Commission, an independent inquiry into city and regional inequalities chaired by Bob Kerslake. 


The Fire Brigades Union’s statement on Theresa May’s resignation is completely damning

Grenfell Tower. Image: Getty.

Just after 10 this morning, Theresa May announced that she would resign as Britain’s prime minister on 7 June. A mere half an hour later, a statement from Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire arrived in my inbox with a ping:

“The news that Theresa May will step down as Prime Minister leaves the country in limbo while the clock ticks down to the latest deadline of 31 October. While much is uncertain, one thing remains clear – a no deal is no option for architecture or the wider construction sector. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister must focus on taking the country forward with policies beyond Brexit that tackle the major challenges facing the country such as the housing crisis and climate change emergency.”

I was a bit baffled by this – why would the architecture profession try to get its thoughts into a political story? But then Merlin Fulcher of Architects Journal put me right:

Well you know construction is a larger contributor to GDP than financial services, and most of the work UK architects do is for export, and at least half of the largest practice (Foster + Partners) are EU, so there's a lot at stake

— Merlin Fulcher (@merlinfulcher) May 24, 2019

So, the thoughts of the RIBA president are an entirely legitimate thing to send to any construction sector-adjacent journalists who might be writing about today’s big news, and frankly I felt a little silly.

Someone else who should be feeling more than a little silly, though, is Theresa May herself. When listing her government’s achievements, such as they were, she included, setting up “the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower” – a fire in a West London public housing block in June 2017 – “to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, is having precisely none of this. Here’s his statement:

“Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.”

A total of 72 people died in the Grenfell fire. At time of writing, nobody has been prosecuted.

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

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