Thirty years after the publication of the Urban Task Force report, England’s urban renaissance is gathering pace.
Cities are more closely linked than ever before through groups like the Core Cities and Key Cities, and the network of metro mayors. Austerity has hit them hard, and there are rivalries, north-south divides and continuing gripes about London, but our cities seem to share a self-confidence and speak the same language.
And it is a language of success. Following decades of decline, urban populations have been rising faster than rural ones, and internal migration from cities to countryside has slowed. With this resurgence of population growth has come economic revival, with cities like Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham outperforming their regions.
But in the shadow of this city success story, there is a more uncomfortable relationship. Outlying and peripheral towns are facing a tougher time. They lack the density of transport connections, people, and academic institutions that has helped larger cities recover from deindustrialisation.
These areas feel left behind. In the UK – as in countries from Turkey to the US – this feeling has found political expression, pitting small town populism against the perceived cosmopolitan elitism of urban liberals.
This debate crackled at the recent launch of Centre for London’s London, UK report. Connecting Sheffield with the Don Valley was as intensely discussed as connecting South Yorkshire to London, and representatives of Cornwall Council argued strongly that devolution debates could not begin and end with metro mayors.
The contrast between urban success and peripheral need is visible across the country, but it is perhaps particularly stark in southeast England, where overwhelming prosperity can obscure the intensity of poverty.
The isolated coastal communities of Jaywick in Essex – the UK’s most deprived ward according to government statistics – are a world away from the Towie glamour of London’s eastern fringes. And recent research by Southern Policy Centre has flagged up the alienation common to poorer people living in deprived pockets within affluent communities.
As the economic nucleus of south east England, London stands accused of exacerbating these inequalities. Next Door Neighbours, a Centre for London and Southern Policy Centre report published last year, highlighted how.
As London has grown so has commuting, up 30% in just over ten years. People leaving London in their thirties to settle in surrounding towns is nothing new, but the ‘Down From London’ effect is a mixed blessing.
It brings more wealth into run-down towns, but also pushes property prices to a point where few people earning local salaries can afford them. Affordability has worsened fastest in the towns where commuting has grown most.
Alongside this export of wealth and runaway house prices is the export of poverty. London’s boroughs are accused of buying up property outside the capital to provide temporary accommodation for homeless people with priority needs that councils must meet. This affects property prices and can load demand onto social workers and other local services.
Different places have different blends of problems and opportunities. Some communities are dealing with population growth, and spiralling housing and public services costs, while others are trying to sustain or reignite local economic vitality.
Many face both population growth and economic stagnation, and are seeking a sustainable economic strategy that amounts to more than providing dormitory space for commuters into London and other economic hubs.
All of which makes the current ‘examination in public’ of the draft London Plan important for a much wider area than London’s 32 boroughs and the City. For nearly 20 years, London’s mayors have ordained that the capital will ‘consume its own smoke’, despite increasing evidence that it isn’t doing so.
Sadiq Khan’s draft London Plan makes tentative references to working with willing partners to accommodate a small proportion of London’s growth outside the M25 in a planned way, rather than letting the ad hoc processes of commuting growth and homelessness outsourcing define the relationship.
Some local authorities outside London have given these plans a cautious welcome if, crucially, new infrastructure can be put in place. If, as many expect, London struggles to accommodate the 65,000 homes a year that the plan proposes, these discussions will become increasingly urgent.
The band is striking up, but the dancing is still a bit awkward. The politics are particularly difficult, not least when a Labour mayor is surrounded by Conservative counties and districts. And government has expressed hostility to anything that looks like the reinvention of regional planning or a challenge to the sacrosanctity of the green belt.
But policy and partnerships need to change to reflect the realities of growth and need. A more concerted approach to planning across the wider south east is required – to understand economic links, to weigh up options for new towns, urban extensions and growth corridors, and to plan for the infrastructure that will be needed to support growth and economic revitalisation across the region.
None of this will be easy, but pretending that London and its surrounding cities, towns and villages are completely independent of each other feels increasingly evasive and unrealistic.
Richard Brown, research director, Centre for London