The good life, by Tony Travers

4 Aug 05
For all the talk of a dramatic urban renaissance, population flight from Britain's city centres to suburbia and the countryside continues apace. Tony Travers explains what needs to be done to reverse the trend

05 August 2005

For all the talk of a dramatic urban renaissance, population flight from Britain's city centres to suburbia and the countryside continues apace. Tony Travers explains what needs to be done to reverse the trend

Britain is enjoying an urban renaissance. After years of decline and dereliction, cities from Glasgow to Plymouth are filling up with vibrant new populations. Downtown Manchester is an internationally acclaimed triumph. Newcastle has joined Gateshead to become an entirely new kind of cross-river partnership. Liverpool is about to be European City of Culture.  And, of course, London has been chosen to host the 2012 Olympic Games.

There is no doubt that 30 years of public policy have done much to help British cities reverse the effects of de-industrialisation.

From Peter Shore's 1977 white paper Policy for the inner cities to the present government's Sustainable Communities policy, successive governments have fought market forces that appeared to be killing off many northern and Midlands cities. The Conservatives had their own solutions, including development corporations, enterprise zones and, especially, former environment secretary Michael Heseltine.

What we have been left with is one of Europe's most evolved urban regeneration policy machines. A large new industry has been created, embracing ministers, officials, developers, builders, planners, architects, transport specialists, colleges, surveyors, development agencies, cultural institutions, sport, local authorities and, of course, academic 'urbanists'.

The causes of economic and wider decline in Britain's cities are still only partly understood. The radical changes in industry that started in the mid-1970s and which continue now at a slower pace, were clearly the single biggest cause.

But economic decline was not the only problem facing the cities and their metropolitan hinterlands. Ever since industrialisation in the early part of the nineteenth century, there had been deep suspicion of the country's rapidly constructed urban life.

Having so many people living together in tightly-knit streets, forced into unnatural intimacy, horrified Victorian moralists. William Hogarth's London, though just pre-industrial, encapsulated the problems of drunkenness, vice and corruption that cities could, apparently, encourage.

Cities were also concentrations of desperate poverty and, as a result, could harbour political radicalism.  Municipal activism, particularly early progressive politics, sought to provide public services as a way of cleansing, healing and improving cities.

The aristocracy, of course, continued to have their main homes in the cleaner, safer, countryside. During the mid-nineteenth century, the burgeoning industrial middle class started to use its new money to build large houses on the edge of the new industrial cities. 

Such attitudes have lived on. With the advent of the railways and later, private cars, it became possible for an ever-larger proportion of the population to leave the smoky city centre and become 'commuters'. Larger Victorian terraces and villas, later supplemented by an inter-war sprawl of mock-Tudor semis, are the most striking evidence of the desire for streets with a touch of rural beauty. The suburb had been born.

Increasing affluence, faster travel and a growing perception that cities were in terminal economic decline led to significant de-population after the Second World War.

Government policies to 'decentralise' the economy and to provide replacements for inner-city slums contributed to the drift away from most British cities.

New towns were built. City centres hollowed out.  Only the poor, generally trapped in council housing, could not escape the crumbling cities. It was this bleak background that spurred the Callaghan government of the mid-1970s to start the inner-cities policies that, taken with those of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, have produced today's radically improved city centres.

The Blair government initiated its own particular take on the subject by commissioning Lord Rogers to chair the task force that patented the idea of an urban renaissance. Indeed, Richard Rogers has become British cities' glamorous champion.

He has spearheaded a broad coalition that has lobbied for higher densities of population in cities, better urban design and a more general improvement to the quality of city life. With support from both city leaderships and rural campaigners, this coalition has urged the government to put policies in place that will reuse so-called 'brownfield' land in cities, while protecting the countryside from development.

But just how successful have all these policies been in changing wider attitudes to city living? Have the British finally got over their distaste for urban – particularly downtown – living? Are the thousands of flats now being constructed along the canals, rivers and docksides of the ex-industrial cities really part of a wider, historic, move back to the cities?

Sadly, the answer is 'only up to a point'. There is no doubt that as deindustrialisation has slowed down and new service industries have begun to prosper in cities, jobs and people have started to trickle back.

Good architecture and some iconic buildings have replaced many dire 1960s monoliths with tasteful new buildings. Brindleyplace and Selfridges, among a number of projects, have utterly changed the landscape of central Birmingham. For the first time, there is a large and growing population in the core of Manchester. Industrial buildings are now being reused for residential purposes.

But the revival of the cities goes only so far. Beyond many of the gleaming new downtowns is a ring of poverty and dereliction. There is not yet much evidence of a middle-class move back into the core of the older urban centres. The young and the single evidently enjoy the new lofts and apartments. But people with school-age children and the elderly generally still prefer to live much further away from the city centre.

More worryingly, research for the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Cabe) provides revealing evidence about where the public's real appetites lie.

Its report What home buyers want: attitudes and decision making among consumers, says: 'The attractions of the countryside still exert a powerful influence on locational choice because of the perceived amenities of living out of town, even though penalties will be incurred because of the need to travel to work and to reach facilities. This aspiration certainly works against policies of increasing the density of development.'

Despite the efforts of Lord Rogers and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, people still want to leave cities and live in a detached house in the countryside or, in many cases, a land-hungry bungalow.

These tastes, coupled with affluence-fuelled demands for second homes, ensure that the countryside remains under threat. It appears that while the urban renaissance has helped to arrest the decline in the population of major cities, it has not fundamentally altered the tendency for urban flight.

The table on page 18 shows the most recent population projections for the major cities in England for the next 20 or so years.

These are based on recent trends and the age-structure of those living in each area. In each case, there are totals for the core city or cities and the wider metropolitan county. England and UK figures are also given.

Although Bradford, Birmingham and Manchester are projected to experience population increases at or above the England average, all the other cities will lag.  Indeed, Newcastle and Liverpool are expected to continue losing population in the next two decades. None of the wider metropolitan county areas is expected to experience a population increase as fast as the England average. Indeed, Merseyside and Tyne & Wear are projected to have falling numbers of residents.

London's growth is shown as strong and from a large base. But it is worth noting that much of any such rise would be dependent upon continuing high levels of international inward migration. Because of a slowdown in such migration, there is already evidence that the capital's population is not rising as rapidly as might have been expected. Outward migration from London to the rest of the UK has recently been running at an awkwardly high level.

The implication of these figures is clear. Rural areas and smaller towns remain very popular. The 2001 census showed large population gains in many of the counties in the Southeast and Eastern regions, though the Southwest and East Midlands are also fast-growing. The Cabe research findings are consistent with the flow – relative or absolute – of people away from major cities and into the greener, pleasant countryside. The struggle over housing targets in the Southeast and Eastern regional assembly areas is all too easy to comprehend.

In fact, the problem is rather worse than these numbers suggest. Although public policy has been relatively successful in kindling a revival within the central areas of the larger cities, many smaller urban centres have been left behind.

As ministers and grandee architects have enthused over the cores of cities, places such as Knowsley, Hull and Doncaster have received far less attention. And beyond these, are places such as Burnley and Stoke-on-Trent.

Moreover, the suburbs of most cities have been ignored by the Whitehall policy machine. There are now badly decayed tracts within the outer parts of most major – and indeed smaller– cities. Suburban living is less popular than it once was. 

If city centre and suburban living are to be made more popular, the government will have to change patterns of public investment. People will not prefer city life to the countryside until and unless quality of life can be tipped in favour of urban areas.

So long as rural authorities offer better schools, less stressed health provision, lower crime rates and congestion-free roads, it is hardly surprising that the mobile, affluent part of the population will choose to move there.

Major cities and their smaller satellites will have to be given priority in terms of spending on new transport infrastructure and educational, health and cultural facilities. Britain's larger metropolitan areas need underground railways of the kind found in almost all their European competitors. Yet Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester have each recently been told they cannot develop new or existing tramways.

In addition, schools in cities will have, on average, to produce better results than those found in rural areas.  Primary health care and hospitals must be made more attractive and effective than those in the countryside.  Crime rates must converge (preferably downwards).

To achieve such a turnaround in the metropolitan areas, there will be less money available for rural ones.  If taxes are not to rise, there is no way that cities could be improved radically without requiring the countryside to get by with lower public service standards. 

However, even to suggest such an idea would induce apoplexy among an array of powerful rural lobbyists.  Politicians of all parties would reject the idea of, in effect, reducing the quality of life in the countryside.

The plight of impoverished farm workers and children in isolated communities would be dragged into the political limelight.

The idea of shifting resources from rural areas to the cities would be rejected utterly. Yet it is inconceivable that cities could be made more popular unless they become attractive and safer places to live. There are a number of powerful cultural and historic imperatives working against urban life.

Low-quality public services in cities simply compound the problem. An urban renaissance could still be achieved, but not without radical changes in the focus of public investment. There are hard political choices still to be made.

Tony Travers is the director, Greater London Group, the London School of Economics


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