Philip Barnes – Blog

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Reading about the recent Stoke diaspora meetings attended by luminaries such as Tristram Hunt, Kate Barker and EY Chief Economist Mark Gregory set off some questions about my own home town of Middlesbrough.

  1. Should there be a Middlesbrough diaspora trying to help?
  2. Is there one already?
  3. Could it work as there isn’t anyone named Tristram from Middlesbrough?
  4. What would we talk about?

Going straight to the last one I guess we would reflect on the fact that Middlesbrough is the only North American city in the UK.  A genuine pioneer town created within 50 years after some clever ambitious people realised that with the invention of the railways and the Bessemer process it was pretty handy having iron ore reserves within easy access of a river. From a population of 40 people in 1830 Middlesbrough grew to 40,000 in 1870 and then to 90,000 in 1900.

So riverbank farms and fields quickly changed into the town described by William Gladstone as the “infant Hercules”.  It’s nickname was Ironopolis.  An industrial success story to match Mr Carnegie or Mr Ford and accompanied by unprecedented levels of migration.  Mainly families like mine from Ireland, arriving to serve the mighty steelworks and shipyards.  In 1880 there were more Irish people living in Middlesbrough than London.  Only Liverpool accommodated more.

Then more clever people realised that the salt marshes on the other side of the river meant it was a great place to make ammonia – a core component of fertiliser amongst other things.  ICI started manufacturing fertiliser at Billingham and liked the area so much they then opened a second massive chemical complex downstream at Wilton to make newly invented products like polythene, polyethylene and perspex.  The migration continued.

In 1945 Max Lock (perhaps the leading town planner of the day) produced the Middlesbrough Survey and Plan.  A grand vision of vast industrial complexes, low density private and public housing estates and miles of new distributor roads.  All were faithfully constructed exacerbating the US look and feel of the town.

But then the problems started.

Globalisation and automation led to huge job losses and meant that Middlesbrough had too many people for its economy.  The area remained economically successful exporting vast quantities of different products around the world but there weren’t enough jobs to go round.  With high unemployment the statistics give the impression of an economic backwater.

The reality is quite the reverse.  Even as ICI and British Steel gradually reversed out of Teesside global industrial conglomerates like Sabic and Huntsman have moved in.  Not to mention the opportunities created for entrepreneurs like Steve Gibson with his Bulk haul business picking up the old ICI distribution routes.  The area remains a world-class centre for the process and chemical industries.  The port is one of the best in the UK and was a key reason for attracting Hitachi to nearby Newton Aycliffe.

But the problem of too many people stubbornly remains.  And it skews the economic status and statistics for the town because without sufficient employment opportunities many in the community unfortunately fail to realise their potential.

Clever sociologists might be able to explain why so many people were prepared to migrate to Teesside when jobs were available but, generations later, their ancestors stay when the opportunities are so much diminished.  Indeed out-migration tends to be higher amongst the most qualified rather than least.  One thing is sure – a Detroit-style mass migration out of the town would inevitably leave Detroit-style issues of urban decay, abandonment and social fragmentation.  Albeit we should remember that Detroit now, at last, seems to be resurgent.

Another thing is sure – if there had been a planning system in the 1870s Teesside (and me) would not exist.  Vast areas of land were needed to build the new industries and homes. Development and growth at a rate inconceivable in the UK since 1947 and impossible since the abandonment of the New Town concept.

In today’s planning environment local plan proposals are derived from the household projections which are based on what has happened in the last five years.  In stark contrast Middlesbrough grew on the basis of new inventions, new industries, new means of transport, new ways of raising finance and a new spirit of entrepreneurialism and ambition.  Steel rails from Middlesbrough were laid across the globe.  The current approach of “rationing” growth and forbidding development outside the local plan would have killed Middlesbrough at birth.

So no easy conclusions or answers.  The home town remains a jewel in the UK’s industrial, manufacturing and exporting crown.  A long-term economic success story accommodating huge numbers of highly skilled business leaders and workers exporting to the world.  But the problem remains that it is home to more people than its modern manufacturing economy can support.  As a result too many are leading wholly unfulfilled lives due to lack of opportunity and the statistics perhaps deter talented young people from moving to (or staying in) the town. The solution to that appears far from easy.


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Time to reflect on a year of cities.  I am lucky that work means regular visits to most of the UK’s great cities whilst the need to sully favour with the children shortly to leave home has meant a few overseas city breaks in 2015.


Perhaps the overriding impression from the year is how similar London and New York now are. And how different they both are to any other city I have visited.  In both cities:

  • the current flow of global immigration is palpable.  The millions of people from hundreds of countries are more predominant than the indigenous population creating an incredible diversity and vibrancy in terms of food, shops and culture
  • such is the resident and tourist demand for food and drink there appears to be a coffee shop or some other eaterie every 50 metres. And usually the same brands in both cities
  • West End and Fifth Avenue sell the same products, to the same customers,  from the same high end stores
  • The City and Wall Street are both increasingly crammed with brand new skyscrapers of similar architectural styles
  • Master-plans for the big regeneration opportunities at Nine Elms and Hudson Yards look suspiciously similar
  • Central Park and Hyde Park both still look and feel like magnificent green lungs but both perhaps struggling to provide the tranquility they once did
  • formerly edgy districts like Harlem and Brixton both now offer multi-million dollar flats, cheek by jowl with council estates/high rise projects
  • public transport is constantly full, 7am to 10pm seems to be the rush hour

Above all else the diversity.  London no longer feels like part of England and perhaps New York never felt like being part of the US.  Both are magnets for some of the most talented and ambitious young people in the world and it shows.

But what about the differences between these two great places.  Firstly the public realm. London is consistently fantastic – outstanding design, superb materials and high quality maintenance. New York simply isn’t like that – in stark contrast to Boston by the way. In New York the general quality of floor materials, street furniture, shop front design control and public spaces is way below par in most areas. The superb public realm being laid down at the World Trade Centre is in sharp relief to many other parts of Manhattan.

Secondly the infrastructure.  I can only imagine what a regular user of Penn Station must think when entering the fantastic Kings Cross/St Pancras or perhaps viewing the transformational plans for Crossrail or Euston. And the snails pace of trains on the “high speed” 215 mile line from New York to Boston. About an hour longer than the 285 miles covered by the 7.04 from Newcastle to London. Plus, having travelled the New York subway for a week I will never again moan about the state of London tube trains again – albeit seems easier to get a seat.

Thirdly the levels of construction.  Cranes everywhere in London but surprisingly few and far between in New York.


Thirty years ago on my first trip to Paris I remember being struck by how similar it was to London.  Albeit with the distinctive Parisian style.  The scale, the variety of independent shops and businesses, the grotty streets so close to the richer ones, the mix of busy and quieter neighbourhoods and the endless symbols of imperial greatness.

Today it seems everywhere within Zones 1 and 2 in London is busy, gentrified and dominated by modern global brands.  In contrast, Paris this Autumn felt surprisingly similar to thirty years ago.  Still incredibly beautiful and well planned but lacking the full-on vibrancy and levels of investment evident in London or New York.  More like Barcelona, Boston, Manchester or Glasgow.

Major cities serving millions of people rather than billions.  All with some architectural masterpieces (both older and newer) and downtowns dripping with wealth and splendour whilst some nearby streets still seem shabby and ripe for new investment in businesses or homes. Economies where tourism and sports branding seem to be playing an increasing role in economic development.


So what am I saying here?  I guess that New York and London both seem pretty full.  Both appear to face increasing difficulties in providing an affordable quality of life (beyond work and cultural opportunities) for the world’s most talented young people.  Will such people make different life choices in the future?  Perhaps deciding that location isn’t as crucial as it once was for engaging with the world’s most successful economies. Could this perhaps drive an economic renaissance of these second tier cities (especially where they can fall within the economic ambit of New York and London) over the next 50 years?

Subject, of course, to essential and expensive caveats about infrastructure, culture and public realm.  And recognising that walking through Wall Street or EC1 does make you realise that many of those who simply want to be be rich and powerful will continue to be drawn there for many years to come.

However, go to Manchester and Boston right now – their talent driven renaissance appears already to be well underway.  Who else next?

Final point.  Obviously never been to any of the great cities in the Far East or Africa.  To be continued hopefully….

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Perhaps the two words I see most in my job are housing crisis.  But by what measure can it be said that we have such a crisis?

The case for justifying the term housing crisis seems pretty clear cut when looking at the statistical measures relating to systemic under supply and lack of affordability.  Not to mention the stripping away of home ownership dreams for a whole generation and the thousands living in poor quality rented accommodation too small for their needs.

But when we compare that statistical position against political or sustainability factors the position seems far less certain.

Lets look first at the three limbs of sustainability – social, economic and environmental.  How does the housing “crisis” relate to these in political importance.

Thinking of an economic crisis most will recall watching the “run” on Northern Rock with horrific foreboding.  The Government response was swift and decisive.  £40bn later most of the UK banking industry was in state hands and the employees of EC1 could breathe again – albeit the rest of us were required to deal with five years of recession.  Again I recall the collective political will act decisively to protect the national economic interest.

Mad cow disease was a genuine social/public health crisis.  A clear risk to health in large parts of the country.  A gigantic Government response costing billions was deployed with military assistance.  It was inconceivable that any politician would have considered arguing against the required response, either locally or nationally.

In environmental terms thoughts turn to the Torrey Canyon disaster.  An oil slick containing 120,000 tons of crude oil caused by a ships master taking a short cut around the Scilly Isles. The Government response involved over 10,000 tons of detergent and a strategy of setting the oil slick alight with the help of RAF bombers dropping 42 incendiary bombs.

So three crises.  All with a swift, decisive and well funded Government response.

But how can the “housing crisis” be called a crisis when some MPs feel able to campaign for election on the basis of stopping new homes being built in their constituency?  How can it be called a crisis when a Member of the Shadow Cabinet campaigned ceaselessly in their constituency against a housing development which the local council was keen to bring forward to meet a clear need?  And how can it be a crisis when local newspapers up and down the land claim victory whenever a contentious housing proposal is refused planning permission?

I guess many people using the words “housing crisis” are those, like me, who have a vested interest in wanting to see more new homes built. Housebuilders, developers, housing associations, housing charities and consultants to the housing sector.  Perhaps out there in the real world most politicians have been happy to talk about a housing crisis in interviews whilst ruling out any “crisis response” actions that may be deemed unpopular to their electorate.

Yet all the while the huge social and economic problems caused by having too few homes pile up and up.

‘Twas ever thus’ – only the use of the term housing crisis is new.  At least now we do seem to have a (second term) Government which seems prepared to introduce some policies which should genuinely increase the supply of new homes.