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Regeneration in the north – what’s the plan?

  • United Kingdom
  • Real estate planning
  • Real estate planning - Devolution

26-04-2017

Whilst polarisation has become a familiar feature of national politics in recent months, on some key issues there is still a degree of political consensus. One of these is the need to rebalance the UK economy away from an overreliance on London and the South East. With this in mind, a project that has survived the political upheaval that followed Brexit is the promotion of the Northern Powerhouse. The appointment of a second Minister for the Northern Powerhouse together with the continued allocation of resources have confirmed its status as a substantive policy initiative rather than just a branding exercise.

The promotion of sustainable economic growth in the North whilst preserving and enhancing the cultural, historical and environmental assets that make the area an attractive place to live and work, means that there is a need to reinvigorate the regeneration of towns and cities. The Housing White Paper picks up on this theme by championing the use of interventionist measures to promote regeneration including compulsory purchase orders (CPO) to unlock ‘stalled sites’. The White Paper also makes the case for spatial development strategies, produced by new combined authorities or elected Mayors, to allocate strategic sites.

Looking beyond individual city regions, the case for a coordinated ‘pan-northern’ approach to regeneration activity with the goal of creating a ‘super-city’ to harness a £300bn economy1 and with the necessary critical mass to attract foreign investment, is compelling. However, the current governance arrangements in the North do not lend themselves to such an approach. The progress of devolution to date has been sporadic with Manchester in particular forging ahead whilst other cities have lagged behind. Also, the piecemeal approach to devolution means that there is currently a range of authorities with planning and compulsory purchase powers that are in a position to advance the regeneration agenda. This being the case, it is important that some form of consensus is reached on which projects should be prioritised and which bodies should take these forward. With this in mind - and whilst there is no general appetite for creating additional political structures - the concept of establishing a Council of the North mirroring the current Transport for the North (TfN) board and with a focused remit to take forward regeneration and related activities, has much to commend it. Such an institution could also assume oversight for policies which give northern regeneration a spatial context and which articulate the distinct roles that individual cities and towns can play to ensure that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. There is also a compelling case for aligning any regeneration activity with TfN’s priorities for infrastructure investment.

Turning to issues of capacity, the relative decline in the use of CPO powers in recent years coupled with the austerity agenda has meant that CPO expertise in the public sector has been depleted and any resources are scattered across the northern authorities. One way to address this problem could be to create ‘centres of excellence‘ in CPO on a shared services model which authorities can tap into when needed.

Despite the political and economic challenges that have presented themselves in the last decade, there have been notable successes in northern regeneration. This is testament to the spirit of innovation in the North together with its ability to adapt to changing circumstances. However, the future success of the Northern Powerhouse is dependent on all of its constituent towns and cities contributing to and benefitting from the project. It is difficult to see how this can happen effectively in the absence of an overall plan for the North.

1 The Northern Powerhouse Independent Economic Review (NPIER), published by Transport for the North in June 2016, suggested that a higher-performing and more unified Northern economy could add more than £97 billion to the UK economy and generate 850,000 new jobs by 2050.

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