Cities of the plain – but it’s not so plain

If you want a picture of what’s really going on in Britain, local papers often provide a better guide than most of the stuff in the national press.

Take a couple of last week’s stories. In South Shields, volunteers at a food-bank were horrified, but not surprised, when a mother staggered in with two small children and collapsed from hunger. Both parents were in work, but were going short of food to ensure their children got fed.

Hospitality & Hope food bank in South Shields

In Cambridge meanwhile, councils preparing a local plan propose to build 57,000 new homes in less than 20 years, more than double the current number of households. Thanks to a badly overheated economy over the long-term and a failure of regional policies, the area now has insufficient houses and infrastructure.

Cambridge is endlessly promoted to international investors despite its already badly overheated economy. Some of its ancient colleges, meanwhile, still seem concerned with developing their huge areas of farmland, while powerful councillors remain besotted with obsolete 1980s dreams of “growth”.

So, is “levelling-up” still a thing? A story in The Times claims the Government is about to ditch the phrase. Voters allegedly hate it, even those who might benefit.

But Whitehall still has a levelling-up department and the need for it plainly gets stronger every year. Some economists, however, continue to urge us to back winners and stuff those irritating poor people and less economically vibrant areas who hold back the masters pf the universe.

I was reminded of this by a blog from Centre for Cities director of policy and research Paul Swinney. He argues that recent research from the Centre should teach us three lessons about investment zones. His first  – we shouldn’t be overly specific on sectors and be place-led – and his third – that we should evaluate universities’ R&D – are unexceptional in themselves, though the detailed conclusions he draws from them aren’t necessarily so.

But his second lesson – that we should focus on the centres of cities with the “largest potential” – shows the dangers of this approach.

No-one will be very surprised by parts of the Centre’s research which shows that economic growth and new start-ups are increasingly concentrated in a shrinking number of larger cities. Ever since the industrial collapse of the 1980s, an increasing number of “second-tier” cities, especially those outside southern England, have languished. Indeed, economic performance has been weak generally, except in some big cities.

It’s an ancient truth that some industries – or connected groups of industries – cluster in certain locations. But that was the old economy and, although there’s still some truth in it, we need to be increasingly careful about drawing spatial conclusions.

“Knowledge-intensive businesses cluster in city centres because their density facilitates bringing people together to exchange ideas and information,” argues Swinney.

There is an element of truth in this, but it’s fading as ICT goes on developing and the old economy declines. Knowledge-intensive industries are actually the best example of this. Workplaces have less and less need to be near other similar workplaces. Old economies, like metal bashers feeding the motor industry, have hugely shrunk. Maybe that will change, but only if we retrieve our manufacturing base from the Far East.

Most people, however, have less and less need to be near one another for high-tech work. If they are still clustering, it is probably for other reasons. People do meet up in city centres, but nowadays it’s mainly to socialise and, despite the urban sprawl of the 20th century and beyond, to live.

Universities are rightly seen as an important factor in our economic future, despite the damage of recent times in trying to make them more commercial. Swinney proposes new innovation zones linked to universities.

In our three reports on the so-called Oxford-Cambridge Arc, we examined the idea of basing an “arc” of accelerated development basically on Cambridge and Oxford Universities and five counties around them. The idea was destructive for a vast range of reasons and has wisely been put on ice despite millions of public money spent on it.

Part 2 of our report in 2019 asked if (and only if) the idea of accelerated development around universities was a good one, were there more suitable places for it?

Without much difficulty we identified five “arcs” which demonstrated the claimed advantages of the OxCam Arc, but which also had much greater need of the investment and could accommodate it more sustainably.

Swinney argues that his knowledge-intensive business clusters: “should be placed in cities that have the greatest potential to take advantage of the policy – those that will be able to facilitate the growth of the new economy with some policy support”.

This is dangerous. For over 40 years now, the UK has increasingly limited its attention to winners, and that includes regeneration. Now, Swinney argues, we should continue this policy.

“A city with skills challenges that limit the ability of new economy businesses to recruit the workers they need is unlikely to be well placed,” says the blog. “In such places, spending more public R&D money, for example, is unlikely to have much impact because it doesn’t focus on the challenges they face. This doesn’t mean ignoring them, but it does mean that a different approach will be required before spending more public R&D money in them will have the desired effect.”

Of course, with limited resources this effectively means leaving less successful places to go hang. And that doesn’t just mean the badly left-behind; it dooms even moderately disadvantaged towns and cities to economic, and hence social, oblivion.

Meanwhile, cities like Cambridge (and how many of them are there?) would be encouraged to get their economies even more overheated, to sprawl in all directions and generally to behave as latter-day cities of the plain.

There are a whole raft of reasons why Cambridge is a very bad place for further growth. Among them, and in no particular order:

  • It’s short of housing
  • It’s short of infrastructure
  • It’s short of water
  • It’s threatened by flooding
  • Much of its hinterland is threatened by sea-level rise
  • Expanding it would destroy some of the UK’s most productive farmland
  • Promoting it (and Oxford) internationally exacerbates the belief the UK only has two great universities
  • It’s an historic city
  • Its public transport links are poor
  • Etc.

Meanwhile, if we leave most of the rest of the country to flounder, most other places will become depressed and the already failing places will fail.

When that happens there will be real trouble. Millions (yes, millions) of people are already going short of essentials. If that turns into tens of millions, places like Cambridge won’t seem like prosperous ivory towers for their comfortably off. Modern cities can’t hide behind city walls.

So the abandonment of “levelling-up” and the re-emergence of the Arc as the “Oxford-Cambridge Pan-Regional Partnership” may be straws in a very raw and bitter wind, while our public services teeter on the edge.

Ivory towers won’t protect the cities of the plain from siege; UK economic problems won’t ever be solved by only backing winners.

Jon Reeds

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