People or Place? Urban policy in the age of austerity: a response by someone with dirty hands

I have been reading again. This time, it’s The Work Foundation’s critique of the UK Coalition government’s urban regeneration policy, People or Place?  Urban policy in the age of austerity.  As such a critique wouldn’t take up more than a few pages – because they don’t really have one – the Work Foundation has wisely taken a broader view and offers an overview of all urban and indeed regional policy since it first began in the UK in the 1930s.

Its main focus is however urban policy since the 1997 Labour government and what governments, policy-makers, and practitioners should learn from that considerable body of experience when framing future regeneration policy. I say ‘future’ because this government has clearly learned nothing useful from the 1997-2010 period . In essence they ripped off the bandage that had been UK urban policy for decades and replaced it with a sticking plaster and wonder why the patient lies bleeding before them. Then they kicked him when down through a macro-economic policy which is breeding depression and long term multi-generational worklessness just like we saw in the 80s – and in exactly the same places.

It was said of the Bourbons when they returned to power after Napoleon that ‘they had learned nothing and forgotten nothing’. David Cameron , whose sense of British history is shaky as we know from the Letterman show , shows an unerring power of recollection in this aspect of governance. He runs the country from and for the south-east as has been the norm – apart from the odd Labour government or Heseltinian attempt to regenerate the regions – since at least the collapse of manufacturing in the UK in the 1920s.

The government I used to work for didn’t get it right either….

Don’t get me wrong. I was a critic of the inadequacy of the UK’s regional , urban and regeneration policy between 1997 and 2010 even when I was working for the government which created and delivered it. When I advised them on urban regeneration, housing and planning, one of my jobs was to review the impact of things like the New Deal for Communities, Urban Development Corporations, City Regions, programs like Decent Homes  and indeed agencies such as English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation. The evidence was mixed and many of these initiatives produced useful if isolated victories but it was clear that there was no great turnaround in the economic fortunes of the regions outside London and the southeast. All had benefited from national economic growth from the early 90s through to 2007 – largely founded we know know on funny money from China or even Ireland , an out of control financial services sector promiscuously supported by successive governments and a fantastically complacent and indeed compliant set of regulators – and many town centres had seen significant new investment and refurbishment . But the gap with London was not closing and indeed was growing.

And while jobs grew in retail and the public sector , manufacturing slumped further and with its continued decline worklessness amongst the low skilled grew inexorably and multi-generationally. In certain neighbourhoods, often the ones we targeted for the New Deal for Communities, poverty and deprivation clustered and indeed grew. Council estates, particularly those on the edge of the former industrial towns, grew to be bastions and indeed generators of social exclusion and concentrated poverty. ‘Broken Britain’, of which we hear even less now when it’s getting more broken as an act of policy , was formed in such places at the moment Brown was grandiloquently announcing the end of boom and bust.

The Work Foundation report is a good  analysis

Although I now live and work in Sydney as the CEO of the Committee for Sydney and part-time Principal for Arup , I was a special advisor to a number of  UK local government , housing , planning and urban regeneration ministers off and on between 2005 and 2010. The Homes and Communities Agency wouldn’t have existed without my contribution to its creation, working with Baroness Ford and a very few others. For those who don’t know me I also tried my hand at running urban regeneration vehicles and partnerships, most notably the Thames Gateway London Partnership from 1998-2003 and an urban regeneration company in West Cornwall. I also have advised the CEO of Lend Lease on building the Olympic Athletes Village and all the host boroughs on exploiting the legacy of the games. I negotiated for the government with Ken Livingston on new planning and housing powers for the London Mayor and helped write Boris’s housing design guide for London. I’ve been around. I think the Work Foundation report is really important and should be read by all at work in the field, whether in the UK or internationally. That doesn’t mean it’s either original or right about everything. It isn’t. It just means it’s good and essentially correct in its analysis.

Economic convergence between regions not achieved but RDAs better than remembered…

And what that means is that despite all the effort made by the government I worked for and despite the global boom of the noughties, if the core objective of urban regeneration was to close the gap in wealth between London , the southeast and the rest of the country, we failed. Many things were done and some achievements were made – and  ‘People or Place?’ recognises those achievements. But fundamentally the job of bringing greater economic convergence between the regions and London was not done. Even more fundamentally, however,  the task of bringing economic  sustainability to vast swathes of the UK , was simply not achieved. The dependence on public spending in such places grew and grew in the period of ‘boom’. Hence their fragility now.

People or Place?  Reviews the policies and the evidence and poses a key question about all this. Is the purpose of our policy to make people or places wealthier ? There is a an ancillary question which turns out to be the most important one. If we need to do both , how?  Disappointingly, the authors’ great clarity of analysis and boldness in setting out the key questions are not matched by the range or reach of their solutions which to be of the ‘necessary but not sufficient’ kind. Or is the problem that there are only incremental things we can do in reality in the UK to alleviate or perhaps moderate but not reverse the long term economic decline in the regions?  That there is in fact no great breakthrough possible and we have to, as Policy Exchange stressed a few years back and Edward Glaser echoed in his recent Triumph of the City, which is to manage decline and organise the retreat from Sunderland, Detroit or Merthyr?

Blair’s mad vision of Neighbourhood Renewal

First things first. The authors quote without comment Tony Blair’s famous ‘vision’ in the 2001 Social Exclusion Unit report, ‘A New Commitment to Neighbourhood Renewal’   of a nation ‘where no-one is seriously disadvantaged by where they live’. I’m commenting: Blair meant ‘seriously’  nothing by this typically inflated piece of uplifting yet ultimately deflating rhetoric. The let out clause is of course that if you take the word ‘seriously’ out of the sentence it still allows for people to be disadvantaged by where they live.  Which at least is realistic . It just means that from the beginning we were unclear as to what success looked like with Neighbourhood Renewal. Which might explain why we didn’t succeed.

Perhaps the one good thing to come out of the whole Neighbourhood Renewal approach is given on p 25 of People or Place?   This is the graphic explaining the ‘drivers of neighbourhood decline’ done originally for the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit in 2005 (see below).

Drivers of neighbourhood decline

This is a real addition to our understanding . The challenge then as now is to create the interventions and agencies which will intervene in the cycle of decline to create a new growth cycle.

People or Place essentially argues that in trying to do that New Labour policy didn’t get thre balance right between people and place interventions or agencies. I agree. It also argues that even where the emphasis was put on place interventions – for example the New Deal for Communities experiments – there was insufficient understanding of what kinds of places we were dealing with and what kinds of change they were actually capable of. It would indeed have been useful to have done the kind of analysis we saw in 2009 with the Centre for Urban Policy Studies report into the typology of the function and roles of deprived neighbourhoods.


Places with jobs and no homes or homes and no jobs

They could of course have read my column in R+R from 2000 and discovered the same sort of thing which I used to sum up (pithily and correctly I thought) by saying that there were two kinds of places in the UK: ‘those with jobs and no houses and those with houses and no jobs’. A failure to understand the differences between places meant that when places without jobs kept on losing people to other places which did have jobs because we were successfully upskilling people it looked as though our policies for people were failing because the poverty and worklessness indices of the people in the failed place remained stubbornly the same. In fact, what was going on was spatial mobility hiding individual social mobility and population churn which saw more socially mobile people leave failed places which then sucked in more poor people to replace them .

This also meant that in addition to not understanding places,people and population churn we didn’t understand the structural forces at a national or global level which were creating failed regional economies and remaindered communities. This also means we did not operate at the right scale and were attempting to get places which had not failed because of their own choices or actions to cure themselves. In essence we assumed that Neighbourhood failure was caused by neighbourhoods themselves and so could be turned around by local action when in fact failed places are where poor people congregate and concentrate due to economic and policy decisions at the regional or national government level.

‘Sorting effects’  versus ‘areas effects’

Don’t get me wrong. There are adverse area effects and concentrations of poor people without skills or prospects or bridging capital will reinforce failure in the next generation in that area. But as or more important is what academics call ‘sorting effects’: the consequences of people with shared characteristics ending up in the same places. While some personal choices determine such sorting ,such areas exist also because of structural forces operating outside and beyond those choices and because of  policy decisions made my others. These are places where poor people now end up but how did they get poor in the first place? The answer is in modern Britain is that they were badly educated or not trained , came from places where jobs for unskilled people had long since dried up , usually  grew up in single parent or multi-fathered families, got trapped in social lettings on long term benefits and are victims of multi-generational worklessness.   I add:though I said earlier in this paragraph that we didn’t understand this, I’m not so sure that was true. We may have understood that bigger interventions were  required but lacked the capacity or energy or buy-in from our political masters to do big things. I’m not sure. So we did what people often do in such circumstances: something.

One thing that comes out of the Work Foundation report quite positively is RDAs, now abolished. The evidence is that they had some impact. Yet another vote for John Prescott who made the RDAs happen in the face of Blair indifference and Brownian scorn. However, in the context of other much bigger public spending budgets and the challenge at hand, the RDAs were smaller players , able to do too little, too late.

Sensible but deal conclusions:more red meat required

And the Work Foundation’s conclusions?  These are sensible and balanced asking for nterventions in both people and place. However, in pursuit of balance it’s not clear that its recommendations will make any difference in outcomes. It raises the key issue but then does little with it. This is indeed the Policy Exchange notion that as it is expensive and difficult to achieve area effects in the depressed regions and failed places we should enable migration so that more people can go to places where they will be better off. My own view is that this must be the focus of national policy as anything else will trap further generations in failed places destroying their future as well as damaging the nation’s.

There are clearly barriers in the way of this and the Work Foundation points them out. The biggest barrier is the protectionist nimbyist nature of the housing market in precisely those successful parts of the UK economy. They all have full up signs erected by local councils intimidated by existing home-owners. Social housing also restricts mobility and again is shortest in supply already in those successful areas. People or Places? Calls for these barriers to be reduced though is not frankly confident that this can happen. It points out by the way that the Coalition’s current policy reducing housing benefit will drive social tenants out of the successful high cost parts of the UK to the margins away from employment centres. It also worries about the further residualisation or remaindering of vulnerable groups left behind if policies of active support of migration are adopted.

This leads to their drifting back somewhat in the final analysis to seeing some  virtues in more area based interventions at the local level albeit supported by worklessness interventions and economic planning at a city region level taking into account wider economic and labour market issues.

Hence it’s rather disappointing conclusion after all this that ‘there are no panaceas for economic development’, adding that ‘migration within the UK remains low,with considerable cultural and institutional barriers before a ‘bringing people to the jobs ‘ approach can work.  They talk as though some of these failed places are ancient with long established populations when most of them are the product of more or less overnight migrations in boom periods. My own Welsh mining village had a dozen homes in 1895 and a 1000 by 1900 and most of the inhabitants came from the West of England as migrants. Migration may be low now within the UK but that wasn’t the case when our industrial economy was first built – so why accept inertia now as ‘normal’?

I don’t disagree that ‘we fundamentally need an approach which is aimed at both supporting people and places’    They mean that we should support individual social mobility and that in the places leave behind ‘there need to be measures ensure that vital local public goods continue to be provided and that continual low level regeneration limits the worst of physical decline’. These are weasel words really. What does this really mean? Managed decline? What about the outcomes for people in the places we keep alive (barely, expensively ) by ‘continual’(how long?) ‘low level’ (how much?) ‘regeneration’ (defined as?)?

If ‘localism’s the answer, I want to know the question

Given that as the report points out that  for the first time in forty years there is now no national program of regeneration, one wonders where the authors imagine ‘regeneration’ is to come from. Depressingly, the sham that is ‘localism’ is their barely alive  rabbit from a shoddy hat. Apparently this offers opportunities to join up budgets at a local level and apparently this will have some effect. Yes and I believe in the healing power of crystals and fairies at the bottom of the garden.

So their recommendations are slight where right and usually beside the point. They call for LEPs to be strengthened in ways which sound like they should restore the RDAs. Just call for that then. It backs Manchester style City Deals but the funding of 130 million is about the size of the RDA budget in the North West for a year or so. They call for community budgeting and links between LEPs and neighbourhood initiatives. Great . And? Also, poor places without jobs need to better connected with places with jobs and accordingly ‘local policy makers should ensure sufficient and cheap public transport infrastructure is in place’. As though they don’t know this. The key questions are how and where will funding come from? Finally, the policy of the absolutely intellectually bankrupt , they call for more community asset transfer. I have always supported this but as the answer to welfare dependency not regional economic decline. It is not the answer to that.

And migration policy? After all the palaver the mouse produced from the mountain is pretty tiny. More people need more skills. We need to support those that want to move to access employment and apparently– though I doubt this matters much as against the housing benefit changes taking the nation in the opposite direction – ‘government policy is already seeking to make it easier for people in social housing to move to other areas to access work’. ‘However’ – you betcha – ‘more needs to be done to increase the supply of affordable housing in or near economically successful areas’. Local authorities in growth will need more incentives , they say, to encourage  them to pass more planning applications for homes and to densify existing housing stock. Good luck with that.

Read People or Place? for its analysis and historical over-view. Absorb its recommendations but remember that you will need to consume something a lot meatier soon after. Public spending on infrastructure (nationally) and housing (in growth areas)has to be ramped up and the money currently being printed to pay the banks used for something less stupid: this will create jobs in the regions but also connect them better to the jobs. We could do with a network of regional banks such as in Germany where they have funded much local economic development . Spending cuts need to be scaled back not up. Education policy needs to copy the success of Korea or China or Finland for that matter and produce more young people with nationally and internationally marketable skills.

Plan for growth – and migration

But we also need to plan not just for growth but also the decline of hundreds of failed places. The most obvious priorities are the edge of town social housing estates where 70% of current tenants are ,and 100% of future tenants will be, out of work. Just like the monasteries they must be dissolved and their populations decanted. An active program of migration needs to be creasted. This will not happen in a year or ten tears. It will take decades. Personally , I’d give the homes to their existing tenants , withdraw housing benefit progressively and stop all new tenants going in to edge of town social housing estates where they will fail , never work again, get ill and under educated and all the evidence suggests, die younger than they should. I grew up in a place which is closer to jobs than such places and even there 50% of the tenants are long term workless. We need a major national program . Not ‘Decent Homes’ which expensively fixed homes in the wrong places. We need to fix people through public policy and set them up for a successful life . That’s what I call regeneration. People or Place? It’s people in the right place.








  • Gillian Balfe

    Rats Flitting
    Being a product of enlightened Social Policy and Regeneration ( sometimes) I feel that I have the credentials, experience and background to make comment on Tim’s blog, which I throughly enjoyed, and has given me the courage to write in response. Born in Springburn in the 1950′s to a family of workers all connected with ‘The Railway’ most of my relatives manufactured, built and exported componenets to give people access to new opportunities. My dad also experienced the sight of what was known as a ‘rats flitting’. When many men left the Parkhead Forge to go to war, so did the source of the rats daily sustenance in the form of the ‘pieces’ made by the womenfolk. Probably why I went on to study biological sciences. Meanwhile back in Glasgow my hard pressed grandmother attended political meetings, John McGovern, James Maxton, determined that her children should have a better opportunity in life than bringing up endless weans to a man she barely knew on returing to fight for his country. Several of her kids were casualties of poor nutrition, poverty, my mother with TB. My mum is still with us, aged 86 and Aunt Agnes aged 90 something in Sydney. She would love to have a good blether with you Tim! I cannot concieve of a return to those days, but I fear it could happen.

    Call it what you like, for my parents it was Some Kind Of Heaven. One of the biggest sink estates in Europe (I only found that out from Cliff Haugue when I went on to Study Town Planning at Herriot Watt). No social infrastructure, but we had a bathroom. Frosty patterns on the bedroom (me and my brother still shared) no heating but Rogerfield Primary School was wonderful.. Lilian Heard took my class to see her in a Light Opera – Carousel and then Bubble Bubble Pink Champage. We hastened to Kelvingrove as kids, had tea at Miss Heards shared flat with other student teachers and went on to the theatre. As my older brother grew, he took to carrying matches. Tribalism is rife. Not a smoker himself, over six feet tall, he was in danger of being intimidated by a bunch of kids who had all been taken out of Glasgow with a social network of elders who would look out for them. They formed viscous gangs, we had an amnesty of weapons spearheaded( pun intended) by Frankie Vaughan, and I wathced the spectactle of Mrs McMonagle running down the spare ground throwing her slipper at a bunch of out of control kids with weapons. They scarpered. What heralded this was a young lad coming up our close a few months earlier, battering doors for safe refuge. My parents were too scared, so too were the McMonagles who had two youg boys. The lad was stabbed up another close same night. Dead.

    My parents at this stage decided to move to Cumbernauld New Town. Great house, but again scant social facilties. In my book this is of grave concern. You move kids and families out into big housing estates, you give them few opportunities to learn from their peer group, a soulless town centre. This is at the heart of the matter for me. I was fortunate in having a mum and dad who had believed in a better future for us. We argued like crazy, but at least we stimulated each other, debated things, stormed out of rooms but we cared about each other

    Coming to My Point
    I would like to know who the Mary Portas Town Team Advisdors are.
    I would like to know how public funding for various schemes is being adminstered and monitored. I think that Leigh Sparks may have a view on that.

    Keep writing Tim. I will input to the Scottish debate on the future of town centres, but people certainly matter. My experiece of mopping up ex mining communities in West Lothian in the eighties was harrowing. They had lost their traditional jobs, been given Brithsih Leyland to wipe up their sorrows, then along came Motorola, who subsequently debunked. Now it is housing which many of their kids can’t afford, but all credit to West Lothian Council. The Proclaimers Sang of Bathgate No More. Thanks to strong local leadership that tide has been turned.

    Like you, I would prefer to recognise and question mistakes we may have made and learn from them. Biology is a holisitc science. So is Rgeneration. Communities will react in different ways. We need to learn to let go of the reins, work with them, not against them.

    • Tim


      Great response. The dialogue is important. I am now reading Enrico Moretti’s The New Geography of Jobs’ which I will discuss in my next piece. I recommend it for those working in urban regeneration and economic development. It’s not a comforting read as it shows why certain places have dynamism and others do not- and how moving a place into the dynamic category is both vital and difficult to achieve.More to follow:nice to meet you! tim

  • Dave Proudlove

    Whilst the Work Foundation report is to welcomed, regeneration policy should not come down to people OR place; it should be an approach based on people AND place.