Are we about to see the rebirth of regeneration, by David Marlow

A government review of 'regional focus' is widely rumoured to be complementing the higher profile reformulation of industrial strategy.

The proposition is that the Brexit vote was driven by ‘failed places’ who feel they have not benefitted from and have little stake in the Osborne/Clark local growth models of metro-city based agglomeration anchoring pan-regional powerhouses and the like. This is most often caricatured as ‘the Sunderland question’.

There are major issues arising from this intuitively attractive but simplistic proposition, and a number of implications for the planning community.

First off – it is just not factually nuanced enough.

Certainly, areas with weaker economies voted overwhelmingly for Brexit. But, putting London and Scotland to one side, some of the fastest growing and best performing economies in the country had Brexit majorities. These ranged from cities like Peterborough and Milton Keynes to whole-LEP areas like Cheshire and Warrington. In a number of senses, Brexit is much more a social and political than an economic phenomenon.

Nonetheless, one can argue that a shift in balance between ‘investing in success’ to ‘tackling underperformance’ is appropriate and timely – especially in terms of coping with the inevitable economic shocks Brexit negotiations will engender.

What, though, are the economic models that might redress the challenges of ‘end of the line’ places who do not feel attachment to metro-based growth models?

At one level, these places can replicate the ‘invest in success’ approaches of the metros – albeit without the critical mass. Most of these places do have some assets of international quality on which they can build. Whether science and business parks, waterfront housing-anchored developments, or visitor economy transformers, business cases can be made for prioritising these type of investments in non-metro locations.

Second, there are direct community regeneration models of skills, employment, enterprise, housing, and environment that can be deployed.

Third, there is a case for rapid transit and major infrastructure links to the global economy – both transport and digital.

The challenge for May and her government is finding the resources to do this, and persuading the market – national and global – that there is long term commitment to redress sometimes decades of relative decline. Coupled to this is whether such a rebalancing effort will be at the expense of metro and agglomeration-based rebalancing, or whether it will be in addition to it.

The challenge for combined authorities and other intermediate (e.g. LEP) structures will be in managing the shift in local narratives and policy priorities from the ‘Powerhouse’ metaphors. Certainly recent developments in North East Combined authority illustrate how difficult this may be.

Finally, implications for local planning may be profound. Typically, major challenges for planners over recent decades have been around enabling delivery of housing in places with high demand.

If the pendulum swings back towards facilitating development of jobs, inward investment, skills and quality of life in places of low demand, there will be a need to revisit much of the regeneration approaches of the late 20th century and to radically refresh them for new post-referendum scenarios.

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