Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

The English Urban Policy Debate: An Urban Policy for All

Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

The English Urban Policy Debate: An Urban Policy for All

Article excerpt

Urban policy and its many substrata, such as urban regeneration, is by no means a neutral term. For Atkinson and Moon (1994, xi) urban policy 'seeks to foster prosperity or, more often, to bring about a return to prosperity and moderate the impact of decay'. Therefore, they observe that it is litigious and controversial: '[f]or some commentators it is inadequate, for others it constitutes unwarranted interference by government. Local government has not always wanted the same from urban policy as central government. We can even question whether or not there is actually such a thing as urban policy; whether it is "urban"; and whether it is a "policy"' (Atkinson and Moon, 1994, xi). In terms of its supposed geographical focus and spatial selectivity, according to Blackman, '[u]rban policy as a general term is about activities of government in urban areas' (Blackman, 1995, 12). This interpretation would imply that there are likely to be other contextual policies for non-urban areas to which one may look no further than the welter of texts devoted to 'rural development policy'. Nevertheless, Blackman also goes on to note that given intense sociospatial relationships '"urban' is a term which describes the general nature of society in Britain and other advanced industrial countries, rather than particular places. Even in the less densely populated "rural" areas society is often essentially "urban"' (12). It is here where the paradox of urban policy lies. If we recognise that 'policy' is a social construct there still remains the question of what is specifically 'urban' about urban policy.

Because contemporary British societies are urban societies (Blackman, 1995, 12) the value of devising policy for discrete urban areas or territorial parcels, such as 'inner cities', 'housing estates' and 'industrial enclaves' has become limited. Antiquated approaches to urban policy sought to identify territorial parcels as they allow for empirical enclosure. Yet, there persists (in theory as well as practice) a predilection to parcelise urban space (e.g. urban-rural) rather than engage in a more penetrating engagement with the process of urbanisation.

Often governments, policymakers and academics refer to a variety of spatial policies including 'regional development policy', 'city policy' and 'growth policy'. Each of these overlap in terms of scope, scale and remit. 'Growth policy', for example, used interchangeably with the prefix 'local', although not necessarily spatial (see, for example, 'spatially blind' variants, Bentley and Pugalis (2014)), is favoured by the UK coalition government and is now used regularly by each of the three main political parties. In many respects it has been used to dislodge 'urban regeneration policy', especially the more socially-conscious area-based programmes favoured by a succession of previous government administrations dating back to the Urban Programme (Home Office, 1968).

Despite its contentiousness I opt here to continue to apply the term 'urban policy' due to its historical significance in Britain, as well as other parts of the world (e.g. Kantor, 2013). In doing so though, I conceive urban policy through an expansive lens of inhabiting an urban society (cf. Lefebvre, 2003 [1970]). Thus, the parcelisation of urban space is of secondary concern, albeit important - a potentially pragmatic compromise in practice, which should not necessarily detract from re-energising the English urban policy debate.

I draw inspiration from the recent Viewpoint by Brian Robson (2014) who questioned whether urban policy remained intact in England under the coalition government. He drew optimism from the promise of core cities at the vanguard of a city regional geometry of devolved governance and responsibilities, which has benefitted from higher political profile as part of UK asymmetrical devolution debates in the aftermath of the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. It is hoped that my arguments extend Robson's ruminations - that a city-centric urban policy persists - as I contend that a more nuanced appreciation of sociospatial transformations is required, facilitated by a fuller comprehension of the dynamic currents of urbanisation processes. …

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