Urban growth exponent

Regional Cities East director Mike Crouch is pushing boundaries with an exciting partnership that aims to give regional market towns the opportunity to shine, writes Susanna Gillman.

Crouch: hoping to let regional market towns shine
Crouch: hoping to let regional market towns shine

Mike Crouch cannot believe his luck. Heading a group of six cities in the East of England has propelled him to the forefront of the urban growth agenda. After 34 years in the planning profession, he says Regional Cities East (RCE) is "far and away" the most exciting thing he has done.

The body, which brings together local authorities in Colchester, Ipswich, Luton, Norwich, Peterborough and Southend-on-Sea, aims to help them capitalise on their strengths to achieve growth. The premise is a simple one. As medium-sized market towns with no core city in the region, they could never hope to compete with the likes of Birmingham, Leeds or Manchester. But in partnership they can punch above their individual weights.

RCE's six members account for a third of all housing and jobs growth in the region. "Before RCE was set up, growth in Colchester was a tough agenda. It was difficult to get heard in the right places and secure funding," says Crouch. Now it is easier to catch the government's eye.

Since its inception three years ago, RCE has had its business plan signed off by the DCLG while its pilot sub-regional infrastructure plans (Planning, 31 August, p1) have also sparked interest. "I like to think that we were an example to DCLG and the Treasury for the sub-national review to show that this work is possible on a sub-regional level," says Crouch.

Although the towns are spread around the region and are all quite different, the challenges for growth are broadly similar - infrastructure funding, the skills gap and working across boundaries. RCE is looking at how to pool staff and resources.

If one town becomes a centre of excellence for a profession, Crouch reasons, the others can share the benefits. "It is about trying to stop us all dipping into the same labour market, to find the right people in a more co-ordinated way. We can be more powerful if we collaborate rather than compete," he insists.

Crouch revels in partnership working. Leading regeneration and growth on Colchester Borough Council's executive has taught him to look beyond the planning trenches. When he took charge of environmental services he was propelled into dealing with everything from planning to highway maintenance, environmental health and refuse, as well as managing 400 staff.

"I could see some of the frustrations that others have with the planning profession being focused on its own agenda," he admits. "I got a better view of how planning contributes to the council's objectives of delivering quality services. Many of my colleagues perceived it as a constraint. The world has moved on. Now we do much more partnership work at local level and operate in a far more varied landscape," he suggests.

Although we meet in London, Crouch is so enthusiastic about his town that I come away with an image of Colchester as a bright and lively borough. Major schemes include redeveloping the army garrison in a project that will provide 2,600 homes. "It is a fantastic, exciting project because it is the size of a modest market town in a sustainable location, right next to the train station and within walking distance of the centre," he explains.

To the north, a stadium is being built for Colchester United Football Club along with 1,500 homes and 40ha of employment land. The old port is also being regenerated with a mix of homes, offices and shops. Crouch says there is a good stream of development that will keep house building in Colchester going into the next decade.

This kind of activity is helping to retain experienced planners at the council, he adds. "When I came here in 1997 it was seen as a pleasant market town in north Essex. Now it has taken on an ambitious growth agenda, so it is an exciting place in which to work," he claims. Facilities and jobs have also changed the community's perception of the area. "That is why Colchester has been so supportive of the growth agenda. In spite of the enormous challenges, it raises opportunities and quality of life," he insists.

Crouch clearly relishes the changes on his doorstep. But he is now pushing beyond his local remit to step up to the government's growth challenge. All the skills he has honed in planning - communication, negotiation and evaluation of ideas - are paying off in his wider regional role. "I have not done anything before where I feel that I am making such an impact in raising the profile of our towns, cities and the region, or in trying to influence evolving national policy," he concludes.

Age: 56
Family: Married with two children
Education: BA in geography, Durham University, 1972; diploma in town
planning, Chelmer Institute of Higher Education, 1977; diploma in
management studies, Henley Management College, 1990
Interests: Cycling, bird-watching, gardening, walking
2004: Director, Regional Cities East
2001: Executive director, regeneration and sustainable growth,
Colchester Borough Council
1997: Director of environmental services, Colchester Borough Council
1995: Director of planning and development, Babergh District Council
1977: Assistant planner, Babergh District Council
1973: Planning officer, East Suffolk County Council.

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