Does England No Longer Have an Urban Policy?

By Robson, Brian | The Town Planning Review, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Does England No Longer Have an Urban Policy?


Robson, Brian, The Town Planning Review


Manchester University's Centre for Urban Policy Studies (CUPS) celebrated its thirtieth anniversary on 4 June 2013. During those three decades it has undertaken a wide range of research projects for government departments, local and regional organisations and charitable funders. Much of our work has focused on evaluating urban and regional policy, developing measures of deprivation and understanding the ways in which deprived neighbourhoods function.

As the founding director of CUPS, I invited a number of our collaborators and research friends working in the same field to talk about the past and future of urban policy and the role and dynamics of poor neighbourhoods. Peter Hetherington, from the Guardian newspaper, chaired the day and added his longstanding expertise on regional and urban issues to the debate; Sir Brian Briscoe spoke on rebalancing the economy and the role that High Speed 2 (HS2) might play in this; Peter Tyler of the Department of Land Economy, University of Cambridge, gave a wide-ranging outline of the impacts of the former Single Regeneration Budget and where urban policy might now go; Sir Richard Leese, the Leader of Manchester City Council, spoke on the significance of the core cities and how recent policy changes were impacting on local authorities; Ruth Lupton, of London School of Economics (LSE), traced the fortunes of neighbourhoods over the recent past; and Alastair Rae, Kitty Lymperopoulou and Bob Barr - previous CUPS researchers - talked on the dynamics of poor neighbourhoods and residential churn and the need for a more robust national database.

The day provided a splendid stimulus to ponder where we have come from and where we are now heading in tackling the problems and realising the potential of our cities. By and large, views of the future were gloomy. Only Brian Briscoe and Richard Leese offered the qualified suggestion that there may be silver linings to many of the current policy clouds. And there is more than enough evidence to support the view, in Peter Hetherington's words, that for the first time in forty years we now have no urban policy.

Most of the senior civil servants who had experience in, and a commitment to, urban policy have now disappeared from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), and what interest there is in developing urban policy now seems largely to be in the Cities Policy Unit in the Cabinet Office, which, of course, is not a spending department. Indeed, in the coalition government's financial squeeze DCLG has probably accepted larger tranches of cuts than any other spending depart- ment, and this was continued in the recent spending review when the Chancellor cut its budget for 2015-2016 by a further 10 per cent, took pains to congratulate DCLG on having reduced itself 'by 60 per cent' and lauded the department (and its Secre- tary of State) as 'a model of lean government'. Inevitably, this has had direct impacts on urban policy. It has led to the abrupt termination of many of the urban spending programmes, such as Housing Market Renewal and the Working Neighbourhoods Fund, and it has prompted some local authorities to close community based facilities. The abolition of the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) cut off one of the major channels of funding for urban and regional development. Indeed, prophets of doom and gloom have more than enough examples to reinforce their hostility to the policies of the coalition.

Yet, as with most perspectives, the glass can be seen as half empty or half full. There is a perfectly credible counter argument that things are not as dire as commen- tators (not least academic researchers) maintain. Many years ago in the 1980s, I was impressed by the view of Graham Stringer (Richard Leese's predecessor as Leader of the City Council) when Manchester's bids for Single Regeneration Bid resources had been rejected by the then government. I asked him whether he had a plan B and, to paraphrase, he said: 'there's no huge problem, the great thing is that if you have no money you have to think'. …

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