Over the last three to four years, we have collectively been increasingly focused on place; both as a way of framing the inherent complexity and interconnectedness of today’s social challenges but also because of the huge inequalities which exist across and within different regions across the UK.

This isn’t new, of course. A brief look at the history and chronology of place-based initiatives shows they step back right to the 1980’s. And even the National Plan for the UK, published in 1955, identified the deep-seated imbalances in our economy across different regions. Although this cited both the South and the Midlands as being areas where the economy was most vibrant and concentrated.

The necessity to tackle the clear geographic inequalities that exist in this country has been here for many decades. It is now almost universally accepted as a key priority, and of course, it is made all the more difficult by the current pandemic; a future filled with local lockdowns and an increasingly uneven capacity and ability to recover.

The fetishisation of the city

We know that the intensity of deprivation in this country is concentrated in the North of England and in coastal areas. The density of furloughed jobs – in some significant part – map to those same areas, and morbidity and health inequalities cut across similarly stark geographic lines. And that much of the country’s wealth is concentrated in London and surrounding areas.

And, for the last few years, I’ve been increasingly puzzled at our fetishisation of the city; the idea that it is natural, inevitable and desirable for our populations to congregate to live and work in ever smaller spaces; and up until very recently it seems to be a vastly under-explored area. The earliest challenge I can find to the idea of the city as the central organising principle for a modern population is Lewis Mumford. As early as 1938, he wrote: ‘Will life continue to ebb out of the villages and country towns and regional centres? Will urban life come to mean further concentration of power in a few metropolises, whose ramifying suburban dormitories will finally swallow the rural hinterland?’.

Much more recently, the Santa Fe Institute have been exploring questions around cities, scaling and sustainability, through quite a hard scientific lens; and I’m increasingly of the view that the city is equally vulnerable, and there could well be an optimal size for each city, before the challenges created by a growing city (affordability of housing, access to education, over-worked infrastructure, inherent vulnerability in  food supply chains) begin to degrade quality of life to a disproportionate degree.

The ‘levelling up’ agenda has unified many in the need to tackle the huge geographic inequalities across the UK and it’s certainly a non-controversial phrase to those who are already ‘up’. The implication is that the ‘rest of us’ will be ‘levelled up’ to meet where some others are already. The language has not been one of ‘levelling across’ in ways that allow us to think about an equalisation of power or wealth across our geography.  Levelling Up comforts those already ‘up’ that this is not an agenda that will result in them losing out, or giving away something they believe is hard won.

But it could well be that ‘levelling across’ the country is, in small part at least, where we will end up; not as a result of some politically conscionable effort at redistribution of public spending, or because of a long awaited central decision to devolve power, but because those who have benefited economically from the last few decades and those who are unable to sustain a decent standard of living in cities, now have the opportunity to re-distribute themselves – in what will probably be a generation-long effort to find meaning, value and security in an increasingly complex, polarising and turbulent country.

A gravitational powerhouse

The central hypothesis is this: that our models of regional growth will not be inclusive or successful in the long term – and we will not be able to ‘level up’ – if they are predicated on wholesale drift of working populations into a small handful of cities. This dynamic is ageing and debilitating our towns and forcing continued pressures in our cities – and whether in the city or outside it, it is those who are less well-off who end up getting the rawest deal.

This is a dynamic driver of structural, geographic inequality that we have been collectively reinforcing for decades. It’s spawned a thousand innovative solutions in cities; huge, ambitious infrastructure projects and complex, just-in-time supply chains to cope with large concentrations of people in one place. In London, it’s enabled 16% of England’s population to live on 1.2% of England’s land – and (by and large) still be fed, watered, housed, employed, cared for and entertained. It’s created a dynamic, powerhouse of a city, globally revered, generating around 23% of the UK economy.

And because London has been such a gravitational powerhouse, and despite growing evidence that our towns, high streets, villages outside our small handful of large cities are in real trouble, we have not adequately addressed the central question of the relationship between towns and cities. Where are what kinds of jobs created, and where do we expect (or allow) our employees to work? We’ve been able to ignore the reality of circa 200,000 empty homes across the UK while still building new ones, because the jobs and empty homes are not in the same place.

Domestic migration

However, if enough of our population to choose to cast off from the city; and cast off from London in particular, we may see some (uneven) economic changes across our country. Cast your mind back to the different world that was 2019, when around 8.7 million people said that they had worked from home; just under a third of the workforce. During lockdown more than half of people living in London (57.2%) did some work at home. In April 2020, 46.6% of people in employment in England did some work at home. Working from home has become our new normal for those in desk-based work.

And if we’re working from home, we can work anywhere. Amongst a period of high rates of redundancies and job losses, the property market is seeing a boom with “sales of four and five-bed houses are selling 33% faster than in 2019, as buyers prioritise more space and widen their search criteria” says Zoopla, showing a trend of migration “away from the more expensive cities, suburbs and commuter belts. Meanwhile, flats are taking the longest time to sell.” The stamp duty relief will be supporting this flurry of activity, but people with the wherewithal to do so, are taking advantage of an opportunity to spread themselves across new parts of the UK.

Employment that pays higher wages are more likely to be adaptable from home, and despite the dramatic increase in software purchases to track people’s productivity when working remotely, many large employers of desk-based staff seem to be reconciled, if not actively mandating, working from home for the foreseeable future. [Reader: insert most recent government ruling]. That doesn’t just mean that people are less likely to be tied to high price city living, but could mean that people already living outside big cities may find that location is no longer such a big barrier to finding more employment opportunities. By way of tiny example, The Young Foundation is now drawing on a far wider pool of diverse talent from different parts of the UK, as the requirement to occupy a desk in Bethnal Green to do the job is far less obvious or clear.

The great puppy shortage of 2020

Throughout the pandemic more affluent people have been afforded an opportunity to re-think where they live, but they have also been using lockdown to make decisions that have large lifestyle impacts, that tie them more to the house – and their neighbourhood. Lockdown has resulted in a huge puppy shortage, with demand soaring and the Kennel Club seeing a 180% rise in requests to find a puppy since the same time last year. People wanting to combine new pets with increased self-sufficiency are the reason behind the three month waiting list for chicken coops; with the ability to actually buy a live laying chicken being as rare as… well, their teeth.

These are small indicators that show the patterns of behaviour in a (probably) wealthier proportion of our population; but there’s no question that many people are re-evaluating their quality of life, and exploring where they can find more security and well-being. They are sensing (consciously or unconsciously) that this isn’t the last disruption we’ll see in this new decade, and they are right.

There is no doubt that we will see further domestic migration of people to different parts of the UK, and a lowering of barriers to desk-based work that no longer ties you to a shoebox and a season ticket. Some areas of the UK will see the impact of this more than others. And as we climb out the lockdown mire, we will probably see more places and regions embarking on campaigns to encourage more movement to their area; perhaps reminiscent of the ‘North Londonshire’ campaign, funded by the North Northamptonshire Development Corporation in an effort to attract Londoners – which (unsurprisingly) went down like a lead balloon with the people of Northamptonshire.

Which gets to the heart of the matter, which is that the inequality challenge we face is not just one of regional economic differences. Our inequality is fractal in nature, replicated at every level. It is inequality and division within our places that is an equally – and growing – difficult feature of our complex social and economic landscape.

Grow and unleash

Earlier this month, the Institute for Community Studies issued a new call for evidence of communities who are working in different ways to contribute to the economic development of their place.

As we uncover what’s happening across the UK, it’s clear that we need a far better understanding of local communities’ vulnerability to, and adaptive capacity for, economic change – which takes into account not just the impact of sudden shocks but the impact of long-term and historic economic transitions (including domestic migration) and the footprint it leaves in local communities.

Communities themselves also want a greater say in local economic planning. The Government’s own Planning white paper sets out that only 7% of people feel they can trust their government to implement a large-scale development which improves their well-being. This may as well be 0%.

Change in local economies, whether sudden or gradual, planned or predicted, need to hold community development and community voice at their centre, to equalise the power of one voice over another, and grow and unleash the community capacity which so evidentially feeds a more inclusive economy and greater levels of wellbeing in a place.

Places Posted on: 28 September 2020


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