Sunday, 17 August 2008

Policy Wonks Devise Wonky Policies

Blackpool under re-construction

Unsurprisingly, the report Cities Unlimited (available free from all good Google searches), part of a trilogy, from the 'think-tank' Policy Exchange has been lampooned widely. One of its key proposals is that people from failing Northern cities, on which there is no point chucking good regeneration money after bad, should be encouraged to move South where all the economic action is which on the face of it sounds fairly benign. Until, that is you begin to think about the sentiments and assumptions underlying the suggestion and the massive implications or as the authors own description put it how “unworkable, unreasonable and perhaps plain barmy” it is.

Or yet still, as one commenter put it, and I paraphrase here (if only I could find the source of the original comment) 'these industrial communities have already had the heart ripped out of them once, to want to inflict further damage beggars belief'.

It is little wonder that the media chose to focus on this aspect of it.

One of my favourite bits of the report is its trying to justify draining a community (not forcibly but by choice the authors point out) of all those who are able to take up opportunities for richer pickings in the South East is pointing out to those left behind 'ooooh look at all this lovely extra space you have'. Not much comfort to lonely grandma when family have emigrated. "The amount of open space per person will increase if population falls". (Philosophical reflection/warning: we do seem to have acquired an ability to count things rather than Value them).Presumably the converse is true in the places -Oxford, Cambridge and London or in the case of Blackpudlians, Bromley- all these people will be migrated to. Some have dubbed what will be left behind as 'ghost towns'.

The report has been criticised for its defeatism. It complains about geographical constraints and location. Some Northern towns and cities are in the wrong location for 'modern business', so they must be moved, to the South East. Sunderland, it says, is a long way from most places. What about the great feats of engineering such as the construction of the railways, canal system and great viaducts. A few hills and geographic features didn't get in the way of these great projects. The report does talk of infrastructure improvements to increase accessibility but in some cases it says this is just not economic.

The report discusses that industries like to locate close together and the South East is well placed, following that logic we will end up with 60-70 million people all crammed into the South.

I do not underestimate the extent to which the fickleness of business interests must be accommodated by governments but heaven forfend that business might also appreciate that the individual human capital which they wish to employ springs from community capital.

As most sensible commenters have suggested the solution is to spread the work and business out a bit more. Surely, opening up more of these fair isles as a place to locate business presents more opportunities for overall economic growth and development than trying to concentrate everything and everyone in a small corner of the British Isles with the increased pressure on prices and services of all kinds and people.

To be fair there is a laudable sentiment in wanting to extend the 'prospects of prosperity' offered elsewhere in the UK, to people, by dint of geography, born in the wrong location.

However, if we value stable communities and families then there is a balance to be struck between encouraging people where the jobs are and enticing the jobs where the people are.

In sum, policy wonks have devised wonky policies to create a wonky Britain.

Further Reading:

Far more substantial critique can be found here where Daniel Davies, an analyst and stockbroker working in London, crunches the very numbers the report is based on and finds them sorely wanting.

Here 'Five leading organisations representing and advocating the growth of cities across England', rejected the report and tellingly their press release stated:

"The heads of the Core Cities Group, Northern Way, Centre for Cities, New Local Government Network and Centre for Local Economic Strategies instead called for a mature debate on the future of England’s towns and cities" -my emphasis, note the use of the words instead, mature, debate.

Bloggers Ideas of Civilisation and Donpaskini try to give the report a fair go.

The Guardian is good here and here.

Liverpool is romantic but can we afford such a romantic idea as romance.

My response to a commenter over at Don's place, which is where this post started out:


"The paper merely says that people should be given the opportunity to migrate within the UK."

Last time I looked people in this country were free to come and go as they please.

Indeed, as the report notes many do.

As for making it easier that would seem to be stacking the odds against revival, leading to polarisation as those that are more able to might be tempted leaving behind those who cannot.

I do have to wonder at a report which speaks of people who will be subject to their proposals as "such people".

Where to start on the rest of it!

Like it or not one of the key proposals in the report is "significant population movements"

"There is, however, a very real prospect of encouraging significant numbers of people to move from those towns to London and the South East."

...and other such quotes from the report.

What of the infrastructure to cope with this increased population flow South. Hospitals, schools, GPs, extra demand on water supplies, the daily commute of all these extra people. None of this seems to be addressed.

Many homes in the south east are already at risk of flooding. Where to put a million or more extra people, let alone deal with the not uncommon objections of local people to increased development in their areas.

The report suggests 'stuffing their mouths with gold' (paraphrasing Bevan) to persuade them. Well, some people value things more than money. I am not advocating nimbyism here it just seems something of a cynical approach.

The money would be better spent developing the local economies of areas in need of regeneration!

Andrew Lewis of 'The Northern Way' said:

"The description of the Northern cities and regions set out by policy exchange is not supported by the evidence. Many have been growing faster than the UK has a whole, creating new jobs, and attracting substantial private sector investment."

Others have questioned measures of growth and success used in the report.

As for the communities I mention of course communities change. But too much too quickly destabilises communities. If people bemoan the demise of the extended family this will do even more to dislocate people from their kin networks unless everyone takes granny with them -of course during this period of relocation there will also be more grannies.

Some people seem quaintly attached to their friends and networks of support in their local communities, however deprived.

The report, though it acknowledges problems such as the extra development necessary not being 'popular' and the destruction of communities due to outward migration but then just glosses over what are major issues with 'but we believe' type statements.

The human angle seems to be underplayed though this is not surprising for economists.

Some of the stuff about using regneration money differently/more locally empowered could be extracted from the document as stand alone proposals. I'm not sure that the great British public would have any greater faith in local councils than central government in spending the money better. With all due respect to local councillors and I know a fair few and they work exceptionally hard, unfortunately many people hold 'all politicians' in equal contempt. However, such a say over the use of the money for local people could tempt a few people to get more interested and involved and perhaps ensure more successful regeneration projects.

The report's own authors admitted that some of the proposals would be interpreted as 'barmy'. Written by a Liberal Democrat and an advisor to a Lib Dem peer both the LibDems and the Conservatives have disowned its conclusions. David Cameron who will most certainly have been briefed as to its fuller contents dismissed it in an interview as "rubbish from beginning to end" though politically he would have to rubbish all of it, acknowledging some of it would have sent an ambiguous message.

But in the end for me its the glibness in the treatment of the relocation issue.

Tim Leunig admitted he had not been to Liverpool nor spoken to any of the City Leaders before writing his report. He apparently told the Liverpool Echo: “I’m a full-time lecturer. It’s the time. I would love to be able to come and if Liverpool was next to London I’d do it like a shot. But it’s a long way."

For one who seeks to propose policies of 'significant population movements' for others yet can't be arsed to make a simple train journey to do proper field research well that's pretty shabby in my eyes.


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