A Westminster Labour government will have to make quick improvements to people’s lives
One of Britain’s leading regional planning experts has delivered a pessimistic analysis that sets out the huge challenge an incoming Labour government will face.
My fear is that things could get even worse, undermining the very foundations of our democracy.
In an interview with Harvard University, Professor John Tomaney pulls no punches. He states: “Over 40 years, most of my adult life, the complete failure to deal with the problems of the most disadvantaged places is something which is deeply depressing. Despite occasional signs of progress, things are getting worse, particularly around health conditions, antisocial behaviour and the decaying fabric of communities.
“That’s despite the best efforts of fantastic organisations, some of which I’m involved with, and which signal the way forward for interventions at the hyper-local level. I think an incoming Labour government has got to have an agenda around what Rachel Reeves previously called the everyday economy and start showing delivery on that very quickly.”
Now working at University College, London, I first got to know Tomaney when he was lecturing at Newcastle University more than 30 years ago. He inspired me to write about devolution when I worked for a morning paper in the north east of England, and I’ve always admired his approach to the subject. He’s not interested in devolution in a constitutional fetishistic kind of way, but because he wants it to deliver tangible improvements in the lives of ordinary people.
He’s also not afraid to challenge orthodox thinking, such as the view that shiny new buildings in a city centre will act as a catalyst to spread wealth to poorer neighbourhoods.
In his Harvard interview he states: “The deindustrialisation shock is huge, and we’ve been dealing with it for a very long time, and I think we’re nowhere near finding adequate solutions to it. Many of the solutions that we have come up with so far are just missing the target continually. On the knowledge-intensive business services argument, there’s clearly a way in which some of that growth can be captured by certain kinds of cities outside of London and the South. But the central difficulty is that it’s never going to be on a sufficient scale to address these underlying problems. In a sense, they exacerbate.
“The more successful you are in concentrating knowledge-intensive business services in city centres, the more you widen gaps with the surrounding areas. There are fragments of interesting ideas around about what you do about that, but I don’t see that’s really being taken up in any sort of serious, analytical way. How do you use that growth in city centres to stimulate development outside of the city centres? Is that growth in those city centres ever going to be on a scale that would allow that to be a realistic strategy?
“ … What you get is this explosion of development in the city centre. Cranes on the skyline. But the content of that development is often less impressive on closer analysis than it appears at first sight. A lot of it’s not knowledge-intensive business services; or its activities counted as that, but on closer inspection fall very far short of any realistic definition of what those things are. A lot of it is adding residential stock to a city region which already has a lot of vacancies. So what problem is it solving?”
This is certainly an argument that many of us can relate to in Wales. In Cardiff, where I live, the official line from the council is that the new tower blocks built in the city centre in recent years have brought and will bring greater prosperity to our capital.
We are also told that the bus station which was demolished to make way for the new buildings was an eyesore that gave arriving visitors a bad impression of the city. Frankly, I was always pleased to be able to emerge from the train station and walk a few yards to the bus station from where I could travel home without any logistical problems. Nostalgia can remind us that things used to be better.
Also in my view – and it’s an opinion shared by many others including the writer Mike Parker – what has been created is a soulless, alienating environment around Cardiff Central station that has done nothing for the southern arc of the city, which continues to have large pockets of deprivation.
Tomaney also pinpoints the confused thinking usually attached to attempts to “level up” local communities: “I’ve spent time in different parts of the country [he means England] talking to economic development professionals, local politicians, business people. Again, it’s hard to identify very distinctive local economic models emerging, which stand outside of the broad story that I’ve told.
“You’ve got things like ‘community wealth building’ in Preston, but if you go there and you talk to people and you investigate it in any kind of depth, it’s quite hard to discern what it is that they’re doing there that is different from what you’ve done elsewhere beyond trying to procure more locally which is not really a model of a new way of organising the economy. It’s possibly quite a useful thing to do, but my sense is that there’s probably agreement that the old model was flawed. That it created in some ways a new set of problems. There isn’t much consensus about what an alternative to that would be.”
What Tomaney has identified is the failure over many decades to create optimistic futures for those living in areas that – as the cliche goes – have been left behind. The residents of such areas have already delivered shocks to the political system. In 2016 they voted predominantly for Brexit, expressing their anger at the failure of democratic institutions at all levels to improve their lot.
Three years later, despite the fact that Tory governments had continued to let them down since they came to power in 2010, they turned against Labour in the so-called red wall seats, electing Conservative MPs in places that had previously rejected them for decades. Now, there is plenty of polling evidence to suggest that seats lost to the Tories in 2019 are highly likely to revert to Labour.
There’s little doubt that Labour will win next year’s general election. The worry is what will come next. Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves has made it clear that the new government will adopt a “prudent” approach to the economy – meaning there will be little new money available for Keynesian-style policies aimed at creating meaningful jobs and displacing the insecure, hand-to-mouth existence that so many are forced to endure.
A Tory-lite administration that fails to deliver real improvements in ordinary people’s living standards will soon become unpopular. This would open up the possibility of an even more right-wing government returning to power under the leadership of someone like Suella Braverman who would base her appeal entirely on culture war policies and the denigration and persecution of migrants and other minority groups.
The Labour Party has a duty to ensure that this doesn’t happen.
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