Published on ConservativeHome (London), 15 August 2008
Dr Oliver Marc Hartwich is Chief Economist at Policy Exchange although he’s about to emigrate for a new think tank appointment in Australia. In this Platform he explains the argument of the urban regeneration paper that he edited and that caused such a storm earlier this week.
Ken Dodd, one of Liverpool’s funniest sons, has stuck to one dictum throughout his career: that the success of a joke is in the way it is told. Unfortunately, our recent urban regeneration research has been reported inaccurately, which has not been funny for anyone in the cities we mention who might benefit from its recommendations. We did not actually say that places such as Liverpool and Sunderland are doomed, just that they are not suited to everyone and the government should acknowledge that. As Ken said of Honolulu, ‘it’s got everything: sand for the children, sun for the wife, sharks for the wife’s mother.’ The problem with British urban regeneration policy is that successive governments of different political persuasions have spent billions of pounds on regeneration policies with the expressed aim of helping struggling cities to catch up with the UK average. Unfortunately, and despite at least £100bn spent on a myriad of policies over the past three decades, this promise has not been fulfilled.
While we are not denying that most (if not all) places are better now than they were, say, thirty years ago, this would not be enough to call regeneration policies a success. They would only be a success if those places receiving lots of regeneration funding were also improving faster than other places.
Whatever indicator you may wish to take, urban regeneration towns are still lagging behind the UK average – a gap that is actually widening. You are still less likely to get a good education in urban regeneration towns than normal ones, your life expectancy is dramatically lower and you are more likely to be on benefits.
But this is emphatically not a north-south issue. True, there are many places with renewal needs in the north. But there are also pockets of deprivation in the south. The difference between them is that because of their geographic location it may be even harder to regenerate places like Liverpool than places closer to Britain’s economic centre, which happens to be in the south-east.
Northern cities have massive geographic challenges to overcome. This is not to say that they cannot be successful, but that it would be foolish to pretend that they will be able to replicate London’s success. They are also unlikely, at least in the medium term, to play in the same league as Oxford and Cambridge, where world class universities provide excellent opportunities for future growth.
We think that traditional urban regeneration policies have not worked and that some places provide better opportunities than others. Two conclusions follow from this: for once, we simply need to accept that in the UK some places will shrink while others will grow. This almost sounds like a truism, but it is hard to accept this politically. It means telling some cities that they will never be able to return to their former sizes and influence as they will lose population. It also means that other places will grow although this, too, is very unpopular to say.
Secondly, it means that we should abandon the current system of urban regeneration. Instead of following hundreds of separate programmes and schemes, many of which are controlled from London, we should leave it to local councils to make their own decisions. If you want to do urban regeneration policy, make sure that local politicians are in charge and that they are fully accountable to their local communities.
These two messages were central to our report, but they were construed to embarrass the Conservative party. It was purely coincidental that David Cameron was visiting the north the day we launched the report. There he was greeted with articles claiming that, apparently, his “favourite think tank” had called for a mass evacuation of north England. Well, we hadn’t. But if we had, I would have distanced myself from the report, too.
He is blameless for this spontaneous reaction, although I wish he had used words other than “insane” and “rubbish”. I understand why no politician would like to be associated with the kind of headlines that our report has created. But it was rather amusing to hear him suggest that the authors of the report should be exiled to Australia. Don’t worry, Mr Cameron: I will be emigrating in October anyway, albeit not as a convict.
However, I do dislike the comments I received on several talk radio stations, where I was accused of advocating “ethnic cleansing” of the north, and of being “Stalinist” or “fascist”. One caller said he would not even pee on the authors if they were burning. Meanwhile, the Liverpool press had a go at one of the two authors, Tim Leunig, who was quickly labelled the “barmy boffin” and received a flood of abusive emails after his address was published in the paper.
Altogether, it was a sobering experience to publish this report. While it is good to stir up a debate – that’s very much the purpose of a think tank – I would have preferred the debate to stick to the things we actually said. And then we could have had a proper debate about the future of our cities. To misquote Ken Dodd, ‘How many honest regeneration policies does it take to change a city? Nobody knows. It’s never been tried.’