Opinion: We need new thinking for left behind areas

Past regeneration initiatives have done little to improve post-industrial areas and living conditions for their once vibrant communities. Public policy badly needs to develop some new thinking, writes Tim Williams.

I was in the UK recently to give a few talks. One was to the Number 10 policy unit on global city trends and housing. Another was to the think tank Centre for London on London and Sydney’s future in relation to such trends. And I also gave a ‘masterclass’ enabled by the Welsh government on infrastructure appraisal and planning. I get around.

At the Number 10 event I pointed out that, despite Australia producing two and half times as many homes per head as the UK, house prices had gone up faster and further in Oz. Although supply is not the answer to affordability in either city, it is interesting how Australia produces so many in comparison with the UK. In the London event I showed how certain Asian cities and Sydney were now beginning to catch up on London in terms of their performance as financial services centres. ‘What is London’s response?’ I un-rhetorically asked. Answers please on a postcard. 

In Wales, I led a discussion on how infrastructure is currently prioritised and appraised by UK and Australian governments and how the process might be improved. This is vital given the evidence that a large amount of infrastructure projects tend to under-deliver, in terms of achieving the objectives on which they were justified while costing a shed load more than originally estimated. The Wales discussion eventually became focussed on why on earth the Welsh government would spend 400 million scarce quid on a donkey of a project: the widening of the M4 around Newport.

I have before in these pages denounced the thinking around this project and the related lunacy of taking the tolls off the Severn Bridge. You cannot reduce congestion by building more road space; and cutting the tolls will just add more cars to the M4 – and has already done so. So why oh why would a Welsh government with limited access to cash spend it on such a pointless and expensive project, when it’s not as though there aren’t enough more vital projects on which to spend the money? A new rail network for the Valleys is one example, as well as a programme of transit oriented developments at key stations, some skills development initiatives and SME-support schemes to leverage the economic potential locally of the infrastructure.  

Modest impact 

Although I have been for eight years a new south welshman I remain a patriot of the old South Wales kind. So to see the Valleys in their current condition saddens me more than a tad. I am angry about the failure of public policy to grapple with the challenges the region faces. While formal unemployment is low, low paid jobs are the norm and there is considerable under-employment with many workers in part-time employment. A high proportion of the potential workforce is either ‘on the sick’ or has retired early. And on some public housing estates in under-served or remote Valley communities furthest from Cardiff there will be few working. Many kids growing up in such places don’t know anybody in full time work.

This is almost 40 years after Michael Heseltine, as environment secretary in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet, wrote the famous Cabinet memo, called ‘It took a riot’, which galvanised the UK government to launch the urban regeneration programmes of the 1980s. That led to an avalanche of area based renewal initiatives from the 1980s through to the 2008 crash. I believe that while they did transform city centres and linked key brownfield sites such urban regeneration policies and interventions did very little to change the economic performance and outcomes in my kind of post-industrial Britain. Set against the destruction of industry and the enfeeblement of a once justifiably proud - because of its extraordinary quality - working class culture, such programmes had only modest impacts where they were needed most.

In this context, it was in my view unsurprising that my Britain – post-industrial, low wage, low amenity - voted for Brexit. It shocked the progressive middle class hugely in Wales that ‘their’ people did not share the Euro-dream with them. That middle class needed to have got out more as they appear not to have noticed the collapse of industrial Britain - and the once vibrant communities built on it - in somewhere land, while the inhabitants of anywhere land, in the universities, government services, the digital economy, business, took their love affair with the Euro-elite to ever more extreme heights. I add that, yes, I understand that the EU regeneration pot had become a major source of regeneration investment, but I don’t believe that it had the benefits claimed for it. You cannot see much evidence of its impact in the communities I know best, or indeed the data.

What you did see were middle class people from outside the Valleys paid to come in to ‘help’ ex-mining communities to ‘regenerate’ – with very little of that income being recirculated in the Valleys through local purchases of goods and services, or long term good jobs. In fact, you saw the opposite. Money meant for the Valleys will have been spent in leafier locales. Valleys communities knew that the euro game meant little in reality for them, while sucking in cheap labour to compete for what scarce jobs there were in the region.

What next for such places? Whether or not Brexit actually happens now, public policy needs to develop some new thinking about the left-behind parts of Britain. The two years since the referendum have been wasted in this respect. Worse, I don’t sense any real interest at the moment, on left or right, in the fate of such districts. Both are too distracted by Brexit to care about them and some remainers seem so contemptuous of the ‘plebs’ in my Brexit Britain that they no longer have any interest in, or piety towards, them, their communities or their needs. Even in Wales I think this is so.

Bring back Heseltine. While a remainer, he has never shown disdain for these communities. He is, of course, Welsh and knew well the kind of people into which I was born. I suspect that experience informed his views as much as the inner city riots of the early Thatcher period.  

Tim Williams is cities lead at Arup and is its Australasian lead on urban renewal. He is also an adjunct professor at Western Sydney University.    

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