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Bad press, good questions

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Demot Finch, director of Centre for Cities, responds to the Policy Exchange report Cities Unlimited, saying it made a big splash.

In questioning the raison d’être of cities like Sunderland, it triggered a firestorm of protest. But in many ways, the reaction was more interesting than the report itself.

National politicians were united in falling over themselves to rubbish it. “Insulting and ignorant,” said John Prescott . “Insane and complete rubbish,” chimed David Cameron .

I’m afraid the big guns on both sides were protesting too much.

Labour’s strident defence of its regeneration record overlooked the continued underperformance of many northern towns and cities, and the underachievement of its regeneration programmes.

Conservative policy on regeneration is still unclear.

And the outright rejection from both political parties masked a number of unanswered questions that they both need to address.

It’s worth repeating the three main points from Cities Unlimited:

  • Regeneration funding has failed to regenerate many towns and cities. The performance gap between our cities is going to get bigger, with the north/south divide getting wider.

  • More people should be encouraged to leave northern towns and cities like Liverpool , and migrate to the south-east. London should be allowed to grow, and Oxford and Cambridge should expand dramatically.

  • All national regeneration programmes should be fully devolved to local authorities. Regional development agencies (RDAs) should lose their funding, and become advisers to local councils.

On the first point, regeneration is still unfinished business. Regeneration funding has helped to improve the performance of our northern cities in the past decade.

Cities like Sunderland and Sheffield saw 2.3% annual employment growth during 1995-2005. But this growth was from a low base, and due more to a decade of steady economic growth. Employment rates are still well below the national average. And getting more residents into work will be much harder with an economic downturn.

So far, regeneration programmes have not yet overturned the deep-seated inequalities within cities.

In 2000 Gordon Brown promised that “within 10 to 20 years no one should be seriously disadvantaged by where they live”. Last month, the World Health Organisation found that life expectancy varies between 54 and 82 years in different parts of Glasgow . Where you live still matters and disparities within cities are still massive.

The call for northerners to migrate to the south-east went down very badly. There’s no denying that many northern cities have shrunk. But most of these people did not move south they have moved out of city cores into neighbouring smaller towns and cities.

Moving Scousers out of Liverpool into congested Cambridge is not the answer. The question is how to stabilise the population of cities like Sunderland, attract employment and support their remaining residents.

Labour’s response to all this tends to overstate the achievements of its regeneration programmes. But instead of talking about physical makeovers, such as Birmingham’s gleaming Bullring, they need to tackle issues like low employment and low skills.

Cities Unlimited was admirably clear in its call for more devolution to our towns and cities, but exposed the lack of clarity within the Conservative camp.

Policy Exchange proposes stripping RDAs of all their funding, and turning them into advisers for local authorities. But what’s the official Tory line on this? The Tories’ forthcoming localisation green paper needs to provide some clarity.

Finally, Policy Exchange did raise some sharp questions. If the regional economic performance gap is here to stay, how realistic is the current target to narrow the growth gap between regions?

If new house building is going to be concentrated in the south-east, how can the case for new house building be better made? And if financial devolution is the key to improved economic performance, how can political leaders be more radical on that in the next few years.

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