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. 


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.