Ambitions for the north: taking them beyond being ambitions by Lucie Jowett, Senior Planner at Barton Willmore

by Johnny Clayton on Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Inequalities between the north and south of England are deep-rooted and historic and most will agree that there is need to narrow the economic performance gap between the north and south.

This is gaining more publicity than ever, as seen by a number of news publishers who, this month, have written an open letter to the Government to challenge political parties to commit to a package of policy measures to help to boost the north’s economy. This also comes one year after the ‘One North’ campaign which came about by news publishers in the north to try to ensure that the voices of commuters across the north were heard at Westminster following the chaos on the rail network last summer.

Two reports have recently been published which seek to provide long-term thinking and a spatial economic plan which is much needed to tackle these inequalities. The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) have launched their ‘Ambitions for the North’ report, a spatial framework that is part of a suite of strategies making up the ‘Great North Plan’ and The UK2070 Commission have published their first report entitled ‘Fairer and Stronger – Rebalancing the UK Economy’.  

It is well documented that investment in the north falls far behind the investment that is seen in the south of England and especially in London. Living and working in the Leeds City Region, it is easy to recognise how these inequalities are felt day-to-day in the north, for example through a lack of investment in transport infrastructure.

The UK2070 Commission in their Report have provided indisputable evidence in the gap between the north and south of England and this now provides a great opportunity to take forward a plan to help to plug the gap.  

The UK2070 Commission have suggested that London is “decoupling” from the rest of the UK which is becoming ever more economically and socially fragmented. They estimate that London and the south-east will gain 2.26m extra jobs by 2051, compared with 1.88m extra jobs across the whole of the rest of the UK in the same time period.

The inequalities associated with this are not only felt in the north but also in London and the south as housing in the south becomes more unaffordable and infrastructure is put under more strain from a growing population. If the trend is not reversed, then these impacts will only be felt greater.

The RTPI’s report recognises that inequalities in the north have arisen from a complex history of post-industrial decline and under-investment in infrastructure. Key challenges with the north have been identified as being an absence of strategic vision for the north, unfinished devolution structures, fragmented governance structures and a lack of planning and funding for infrastructure which is needed to create successful places.

As a planner, it’s clear to me that place-based planning is key to enabling the gap to be narrowed and the ambitions for the north to compete economically are certainly welcomed. Of the ambitions for the north identified within the RTPI’s Report, the recommendation for providing an alternative to the standard methodology for housing is especially welcomed. The standard methodology currently results in more homes across the country however the general trend in the north is that it results in a lower housing requirement. Housing growth is a key stimulator to economic growth and so it is imperative that economic ambitions in the north are not impacted by an insufficient supply of new housing, otherwise we could see an increasing inequality which is contrary to what is trying to be achieved.

The UK2070 Commission’s proposals to tackle regional inequality are welcomed and will help to realise the ambitions that the north has. To tackle regional inequality, the UK 2070 Commission proposes greater devolution powers and funding, including the creation of four new ‘super-regional’ economic development agencies, a spatial plan to guide the future development of the whole of the UK and action to harness new technologies and strengthen local economics.

These are clearly large-scale, significant proposals which are required to try to reverse such a deep-routed trend in the UK and as the Commission’s Inquiry moves forward it will be interesting to see how they propose to implement the recommendations.  This is something that is certainly needed within the UK and it is imperative that support it gained for a spatial plan.

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