Apologies buts it’s another OpEd on Northern towns, in light of the election result? And from a housebuilder of all things. But at least a northerner, who lives here and until recently spent 20 years working on planning and regeneration here.
Everywhere but Corbridge……
I was nervous, it was the first morning of the Public Examination into the North East RSS. First up – the CEO of the Regional Development Agency, explaining the RSS strategy. But PINS wanted to know the real priorities – the absolute basics without which the strategy could not succeed.
The CEO stayed firm. “Our priorities are the city regions, the coalfields and rural regeneration”.
PINS then asked for confirmation that meant that the key priority was the whole region apart from Corbridge?
And perhaps that has been typical over the last 50 years. Spreading the jam to make sure every MP gets some public investment in their area, from a diminishing Government hand-out from Government.
Realistic spatial priorities and tough choices……
But does December 12th offer a new approach? A loosening of purse strings, a louder voice for towns, and perhaps a more business focussed approach to delivering jobs and growth.
As a planner, it should start with defining the spatial priorities. Based on a realistic understanding of ‘the possible’. The courage to back areas which will offer a social and economic ROI and the honesty to promote a needs based approach in others.
Unfortunately this is difficult, if not impossible, with the fabled ‘bottom up’ approach to regeneration. The one where everyone asks for, and gets, their proportionate share of funding available.
But where should the money actually go, and on what…….?
Having prioritised spatially, the next question is how? There are perhaps only three ways that national Government cash can boost the economy of an area. Physical projects, training expenditure, or direct funding new jobs.
Each can be hugely beneficial and each can be a tragic waste of money. For every Newcastle Quayside there is a National Pop Music Museum. For every newly skilled entrepreneur creating local jobs, there is someone else who utilised the training to move up and away. And for every Nissan there is a Linwood.
Picking the winners and avoiding the losses requires a deep understanding of local economic potential. Too often the consultancy studies are undertaken without really getting to the heart of what regional businesses need to deliver more.
Too often defaulting to a museum here, or some ‘digital’ there. Or a newly branded cultural quarter. Without really getting under the skin of the very specific local potential. (Or lack of)
A sharper focus on business and jobs……..
So can December 12 trigger the right economic interventions to create high quality local jobs. Less zero-hours insecure low paid jobs and more of the skilled industrial jobs which the German Government is so focussed on identifying, funding and delivering. Especially in the former GDR areas.
The chemical industry on Teesside is genuinely world class. A brand new ethylene cracker might cost hundreds of millions of pounds and might propel the sector even higher. Yes a lot of money but potentially a huge economic and social ROI.
Now is the time to invest in the businesses which will give Teessiders a hand up, not a hand out. The airport has been saved, how can we now capitalise?
In parts of Teesside the social contract has broken down because the economic contract has broken down. Now is the time for Government to be investing in restoring both.
A greater role for planners?
So whilst it is heresy to say it, perhaps a more spatially led approach. Yes, a more top-down approach, to define the opportunity areas and then frame the tough local conversations on priorities.
So less anytown boilerplate business centres with public sector tenants, in the wrong locations.
And more the tough decisions on where to unleash the market facing Government investment in the businesses, training and infrastructure which will unleash the economic potential of the north.
But without ignoring needs based funding to rebuild the social contract in disadvantaged areas. Through improved housing, stronger community structures, and better town centres.
And enough left in the kitty to grab and support the next Hitachi or Sage when such opportunities emerge from nowhere.