I’m normally a fan of the work of Policy Exchange. They have contributed some impressive additions to our policy thinking in the past few years. However, this morning they have published a report seemingly dedicated more to the art of headline grabbing than realistic policy formulation. The gist of their argument is that regeneration of Northern towns, they take Bradford, Sunderland and Liverpool as examples is a pointless exercise and people should be encouraged to move to the South East of England. Counter intuitive it may be but the report is also just plain wrong. The author of the report says that people might denounce his ideas as “unworkable, unreasonable and just plain barmy” – in that and that alone he is spot on.
Of course the logical conclusion of the barmy PX argument is that Northern cities would be left as ghost towns while the population of the North floods South Eastwards. It is not clear how the already overstretched infrastructure aroundLondon would cope with this surge of humanity. Nor is it clear how we should deal with the devastating social consequences of effectively giving up on a number of Northern cities. This report is wrong-headed and I am pleased that the Conservative leadership have immediately repudiated its findings. Modern Conservatives can not be in the business of defeatism. Hope rather than despair needs to be our message.
As a proud Consett boy I do find the sneering tone of much of the report offensive anyhow. The report fails to make much of the successful regeneration of parts of Newcastle, Liverpool, Manchester and other Northern cities – offering examples of good practice for future waves of regeneration. It fails to point out that Universities including Durham,Newcastle, Hull, Liverpool, Leeds and Manchester offer international research facilities that match or better those in Oxbridge in a number of disciplines – offering strong hubs around which urban renewal can be focused. The authors of this report would have been well served if they had looked at the more complex and interesting thinking about regeneration from the likes of Richard Florida. Florida shows that cities such as Albuquerque (which the authors of this report would probably have encouraged a mass exodus from a decade ago) have reinvented themselves as “creative”, “clever” cities and are reaping the economic benefits. The number of high class universities in the North, allied with a lower cost of living and a higher quality of living means that Northern cities, written off by PX can be the core of urban renewal and Northern cities discovering a new raison d’etre.
The report also fails to point out that New Labour has felt safe ignoring its heartlands and not replicating the kind of regeneration pushed through by Michael Heseltine in the 1980s. As Conservatives we need to show that we are serious about turning round cities that have been in decline – making them attractive places to live in, work in and do business in. We need to create conditions to encourage the private sector; facilitate business focused research networks between academia and business. Culture, creativity and an entrepreneurial spirit should be forged. Look at the urban regeneration overseen by great Tories such as Joseph Chamberlain in the latter Victorian period and great Tories such as Heseltine in more recent years for inspiration. As a truly one nation party we cannot accept a deliberate and calculated creation of two nations. Instead, we should use the debate created by the report to show that we are the Party that is most serious about reinvigorating Northern cities and correcting regional imbalances.