Let’s regain our confidence as a profession

A version of this article appeared in The Planner magazine (the RTPI’s business monthly magazine for planning professionals), February 2017.

The Planning Under Pressure (The Planner, December 2016) article reflected how downtrodden many in the planning profession feel. The finger of blame is pointed at Government for perpetual changes to the system, at politicians who see planning as a barrier to growth, at an increasingly adversarial culture, and at funding cuts.

The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) has its “Proud of Planning” campaign, but we need to avoid an “us-against-the-world” mentality, which blames others. It is now time for the planning profession to look at itself honestly and take action on what it can do positively and proactively to change.

First, we should halt the “woe-is-me” narrative. Yes, resources are tight, and the political narrative can be unhelpful, but these issues are not unique to planning. Looking back through to a supposed past golden era is unhelpful. Now is the time for innovation and a positive forward-looking mind-set.

Second, we should stop using impenetrable jargon, and start communicating in a way people understand. We should embrace social media. Look at Jen Keesmaat, the Chief Planner of Toronto with over 34,000 Twitter followers and a blog exploring issues in more detail. Too many local plans are long, boring documents that could apply to anywhere. Instead they should set out a clear, compelling and distinctive vision for how a place will develop and change.

Third, we should take seriously and respond constructively to criticisms about commercial awareness and attitudes to growth. We must challenge the negative and jaundiced views of developers that some planners still hold. Sufficient weight must be given to the economic benefits of development as well as negative environmental impacts. We all should increase our commercial understanding.

Fourth, we need to be more politically aware. Local planning authorities are politically led organisations. Planners need to listen better to what Councillors or Ministers want to achieve and to seek a way to do so. Developers and consultants could do more to understand political priorities. All of us have a responsibility to build a less adversarial culture in planning.

Fifth, we must reduce the costs and complexities that businesses and people face in navigating the planning system. Whilst these often result from statutory requirements, we should look locally at what can be simplified.

Finally, we need to be more pragmatic and confident. I once asked a Council Chief Planner how they had put a local plan in place quickly when so many others have failed to produce up-to-date plans. His response was, “well, we just got on with it”.

Let’s regain our confidence as a profession, be more can-do, politically and commercially aware, and communicate and engage with people in new ways. Most of all we need to get on with it, and show the will and imagination to make a difference.

theplanner

 

 

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Brexit has always been a Marmite issue, now Marmite is a Brexit issue

The phenomenal post referendum plunge in the value of Sterling led to the short lived stand-off between Unilever and Tesco. The dispute was over the extent to which increased import costs should be passed on to customers for products such as Marmite and pot noodles.

bloomberg-1-year

GBP-USD Exchange Rate 2016. Source: Bloomberg

This has led to much speculation on the implications for the UK economy of the reduced value of the pound. It is clear there will be significant impacts on UK cities.

First the positives. We are likely to see a big increase in inbound tourism and stay-cations, as overseas visitors take advantage of cheap holidays in the UK, and UK residents recoil from a big increase in accommodation and food and drink costs abroad. For Leeds this could accelerate further our already fast growing tourism sector.

Exporters have also received a boost, particulary manufacturers, proving a very welcome economic stimulus following the referendum. This, along with the likely negative impact of Brexit on UK financial services, has led some to think that Brexit could result in a helpful rebalancing of the UK economy. They argue that a shift from over reliance on financial services concentrated in over-heating London to manufacturing based in the Midlands and the North would be a good thing.

But most economic commentators believe the cons will far outweigh the pros. I think there will be five negative impacts on cities.

First the impact on financial and business services will not just hit London; it will impact on other major cities too where, as Andrew Sentance has highlighted, financial and business services are the most significant and fastest growing sectors.

Second, the benefits to exporters could be overstated. The benefits of a low pound need to be weighed up against the implications of the UK leaving the Single Market, which 74% of manufacturers believe will be a negative move. As Frances Coppola has argued, UK manufacturing is now specialised, highly skilled with complex and globalised supply chains. Many “exporters” now actually import a lot of their raw materials and components, all of which will now be more expensive. The cost of rising energy and labour costs are yet to bite. Whilst manufacturing remains an important part of our economy (for example there are still around 30,000 manufacturing jobs in Leeds), it is fanciful to think that there will be a sudden expansion in the sector to become as significant as it is in nations such as Germany.

Third, we will become a less attractive destination for inward investment. Our position as one of Europe’s most attractive destinations for inward invetsment (around 42,000 UK jobs were created from inward investment projects in 2015) will undoubtebly be hit as a result of Brexit even without the fall in Sterling. For cities such as Leeds, with numerous foreign-owned firms and as the second most attractive Core City inward invetsment destination in 2015, the impacts could be significant.

Fourth, as David Smith argues in today’s Sunday Times, the Sterling crash will exacerbate the wider sense of economic uncertainty and instability, all of which will deter business investment and hit our already sluggish productivity. This is far from a managed devaluation. There have been wild fluctuations in the value of the pound, such as the flash-crash on October 7th. We will see inflationary pressures, which may prompt a fiscal response. The cost of UK Government gilts have risen in recent days, increasing the cost of public sector borrowing (although it remains at very low levels by historic standards).

Finally, perhaps most significantly, living standards will be hit, as the prices of everyday essentials such as transport, energy, and food (Marmite included) rise. This will hit people on low incomes hardest, including many in cities. For example in Leeds there are around 80,000 jobs (many of them part time – indeed some people are juggling two or three part-time jobs) that pay less than the “Real Living Wage” of £8:25 an hour. For those who do not feel they have benefitted from economic growth and globalisation, the majority of whom voted leave (see this excellent analysis from JRF), the negative impacts of the falling value of Sterling will far out-weigh the benefits of the current short-term economic stimulus.

Many cities have set out the actions they will take in response to Brexit, for example our five point plan in Leeds. It is clear that our cities face significant challenges ahead. In the context of further austerity, respondingto an increase in prices and the subsequent decline in living standards which will hit the poorest hardest may be the biggest challenge of them all.

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Disruption and Distributed Ledgers

There is increasing interest in the huge potential for distributed ledger technologies to disrupt business, drive innovation and create new economic opportunities for places. A recent report by the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor highlights the significant implications and opportunities of these new technologies.

Beyond “digitised paper”

Ledgers have supported commerce and government for thousands of years. They record financial transactions, property, taxes, and personal information. And, as the Government report says, for thousands of years whilst the material on which ledgers have recorded has changed – from clay tablets to papyrus, to vellum, to paper, and to digital, until recently the basic process of updating and maintaining these records has stayed the same; the clue is in the term “bookkeeping”.

This lack of innovation is startling. In a recent interview, Chad Cascarilla, CEO of distributed ledger start-up itBit said:

“Depending on the asset, people are still using excel spreadsheets, emails, PDFs to basically reconcile what’s going on in the back office. It’s still very much a bodies business. I would describe it as they’ve just digitised a paper process. They didn’t reimagine it.”

At a recent event at The Mansion House, the Lord Mayor of London, compared this lack of innovation to the huge disruptive change in the taxi market created by Uber, posing the challenge that “the taxi cabs industry has become more innovative than financial services”.

The building blocks of blockchain

But this is all changing as a result of the technology, called a “blockchain”, behind the online currency bitcoin. I won’t try to explain the technology here. The best explanation of I have read is in this excellent article in The Economist. Unlike traditional payment systems where a trusted third party, such as banks, stand behind transactions, there is a database (the “blockchain”) which records payment history and ownership of every bitcoin, but is owned by no-one. But despite this database being open and “distributed”, it is also trustworthy and secure, thanks to the innovative algorithm technology.

The potential applications go far beyond bitcoin. This is potentially a powerful General Purpose Technology which can be used in any field where there is a need to keep reliable, secure and up-to-date records of transactions, information, and contracts.

The implications for financial services back office functions are huge. Current post-trade reconciliation systems could become far more efficient. In developing nations, property rights could become far more secure. In fields such as legal documentation there is potential for different parties to suggest updates and amendments to a single document, vastly reducing the complexity and challenges of version control of exchanging multiple drafts. And digital signatures enabled by the technology can also bring substantial benefits.

The potential applications extend to Government, in the way in which it manages and shares personal data mindful of sensitivities around data security and confidentiality. It can also enable governments to pay benefits, collect taxes, issue personal identification such as passports and drivers licences, record property transactions and titles. And this can be done in a way in which individual citizens can control access to their records and can see who has accessed them.

The potential for innovation is being increased through the availability of open source software, collaborations such as the Hyperledger project to create common standards and governance structures, and with the likes of IBM contributing code.

So why is this relevant to cities?

Why are we interested in all this here in Leeds?

First it creates opportunities and threats to places, such as Leeds, with strong financial services sectors. Threats because, like all disruptive technologies, it could automate existing labour intensive back office functions. But it also provides opportunities for innovation, investment and start-ups. In Leeds, we have a strong track record in innovation in financial services, from the building societies to the creation of the world’s first ever telephone bank, firstdirect. Combine this with a strong digital sector, with particular expertise in data analytics, cybersecurity, online gaming, and the UK’s only internet exchange independent of London, we believe we have the ingredients to exploit the opportunities from distributed ledger technologies. And with Innovate UK looking to support commercialisation of this technology, we are looking at what we can do to support blockchain innovation and investment in Leeds.

Transforming public services

Second, the potential applications for Government could transform the way in which local bodies deliver services, share and analyse information, and engage with citizens. Leeds has particular expertise in health data science (we have more health informaticians than any city in the world). We have led the way in creating the Leeds Care Record, a single patient record across the NHS health and local authority funded social care systems. This enables more integrated care and interventions for people. But applications such as this are fraught with concerns about confidentiality. In short, people want to know who can update and who can look at their records. And this is where the technology has real strengths in terms of its security; a user needs a unique key to access their records, and knows who has accessed their information. And because the databases are distributed and secure, they can be less vulnerable to cyber attacks than traditional systems.

Baltics and tailless cats

Third, we are looking to new trade partners to make the most of this technology. Links to London, which is indisputably the world’s leading fintech centre, are hugely important for places such as Leeds. But we are also looking elsewhere. Some of the most innovative firms in this area were not created in London, New York or Silicon Valley, but in the Nordics and Baltics. And closer to home, whilst perhaps better known for the TT races and the Manx cats without tails than as a fintech hub,  the Isle of Man is aiming to grow a leading blockchain hub. It is doing this through Government leadership, intelligent regulation (and no doubt its low tax regime). And with already over 25 Manx blockchain startups, they are doing so with some success. For firms with expertise in distributed ledger technologies looking to enter the UK market, of course London will be a huge magnet, but places like Leeds which are easier to navigate, with a lower cost base, excellent talent, and the right ecosystem could also be attractive.

Watch this space!

“It’s just a database…..nobody’s running it because everyone’s running it”

The final word goes to Chad Cascarilla who cuts through the complexity and sums up what this technology is and why it could be so disruptive:

“It’s just a database — that’s all it is. It’s easy to lose track of it amongst the buzzwords. But it was a big innovation in databasing because it’s fully distributed. A normal database, someone’s actually running it. On the blockchain, nobody’s running it because everybody’s running it. From that perspective, that’s a real big shift. That’s actually hard to underestimate”

 

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Five things we need to do to respond to flooding

It is now seven weeks since the devastating floods hit Leeds and nearby Calderdale on Boxing Day. I am sure it feels a lot longer for the businesses and people affected. The waters may have subsided, the clean up may be almost complete, but the pain is still clear to see on the faces of those who have built up great businesses and who know that the road to recovery will be a long and hard one.

We are working with other agencies to understand what exactly happened, and it is important not to jump to conclusions. It is clear that extreme rainfall on already saturated catchments led to record river levels. There is a plaque on the wall of Leeds Industrial Museum at Armley Mills which records the water level in the great flood of 1866. This time it reached 4 ft higher.

 

ArmleyMills

Armley Mills under flood water. The windows in the foreground are on the first floor.

 

The aftermath has prompted a prominent and lively debate about city resilience. I am now having a few days off after what has been a hectic and difficult few weeks trying to get support to the businesses that have been affected. This provides an opportunity for reflection. I have set out here some of my own personal observations on what we can do to prevent and respond to flooding.

 

More investment.

Climate change is here to stay. Extreme rainfall events will be the main impact in the UK. We must invest more in mitigation measures and better flood protection. We currently have a £4om scheme on site which will protect Leeds city centre, but the decision not to fund the scheme that would have protected the entire River Aire catchment in Leeds now looks very shortsighted. There is a palpable and genuine anger in Leeds about this. This was reflected by the Yorkshire Evening Post in what has been hailed globally as a great campaigning front page (and which demonstrates the real value of local media).

 

YEP-floods-e1451926712800

 

Protect businesses as well as homes.

We need a review of guidance and criteria for prioritising flood protection. This currently values protecting homes way above protecting businesses and major economic centres. As a result protecting Tewksbury was appraised as a higher priority than protecting Leeds, the UK’s second financial centre. Following lobbying from Leeds City Council and Leeds MPs from all parties, Government has now committed £3m of funding to investigate the full Leeds scheme. The ministerial statement made on 27th January 2016 by Rory Stewart MP  was not only positive because of the announcement of the funding for this feasibility work. It was also significant that it also included recognition that the current criteria for assessing flood schemed needs to be reviewed to ensure the economic importance of places like Leeds is captured.

 

Prioritise cities and towns, not farmland and grouse moors.

There have been calls for a review of the regulatory and incentive based regime for agricultural and upland land management. We need to make more space for water. The current system incentives the creation of drainage channels exacerbating run off, and does not encourage the slowing down and storage of water, as was set out in this article by George Mombiot. There is also a need to look at the role of water company assets. In some places, such as the upper Calder Valley, reservoirs could play a valuable role in flood storage.

 

Devolution to enable cities and city regions to invest in infrastructure and respond to environmental shocks.

This could include the concept of “resilience bonds” which has been developed in the US. We also need to enable local areas to develop the solutions that are right for their areas. The original flood scheme planned for Leeds would have resulted in two metre high walls along our historic waterfront, with a hugely detrimental effect on the quality of place and regeneration. We came up with a better and highly innovative solution: lower flood walls and moveable weirs to reduce the level of the water. In places like Pickering and Bellingham there has been innovation in use of natural features to slow water down. And devolution is also important in giving local areas the flexibility to respond quickly to environmental shocks. Our Business Growth Programme, part of our devolution deal, enabled our Local Enterprise Partnership to make £5million available to support flood affected businesses to reinvest in premisses and machinery.

 

Recognise the important role of local authorities.

The response to the Boxing Day floods in Leeds has demonstrated the role of local authorities as the fourth emergency service. There has been brilliant leadership by Councillors and fantastic work by Council officers. They were visible on the ground, providing support to people and businesses, cleaning up, and bringing communities together. And the value of public service has been shown time and time again. For example cleansing colleagues have worked in grim conditions to clean out premises, museums colleagues shoveled by hand over a foot of sludge from Leeds Industrial Museum, and the many Parks and Countryside colleagues who turned up at work to volunteer on their week off. And our Economic Development Team’s links with businesses has been invaluable in getting support to them quickly (we have already provided over £1 million of financial support to flood affected businesses). And the Council has been an important catalyst for building community level resilience, for example through the Team Kirkstall volunteer clean up initiative, or through community based resilience schemes, such as flood forums, flood wardens, and measures to enable local deployment of signs and sandbags by communities.

Details of how Leeds City Council can support flood affected business here.

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Rebalancing the debate about rebalancing the economy – the role of public sector employment

Much of the debate about “rebalancing” the economy has been based on various assertions about the role of public sector employment.

The starting point for the debate is that economies of the cities and city regions of the midlands and north have been over-reliant on the public sector, to the point in some places that it has “crowded out” the private sector. It is clear that in contrast to the pre recession period when increases in public spending boosted jobs and growth in all places, an era of ongoing austerity means that the public sector will continue to shed jobs for the foreseeable future.

The debate is based on an implicit assumption that public sector cuts are hitting all places equally, although they will have a more significant adverse impact on places with lower proportions of jobs in the private sector. However a recent Financial Times article,  London and southeast benefit as public sector job losses show regional divide, reports that public sector employment has only fallen 2.5% in London and the South East, compared to 6.8% across the UK as a whole.

This has led economic commentators scratching their heads for the reason for this geographical imbalance. According to the FT article the Institute of Fiscal Studies said “it was difficult to know why London and the southeast had seen relatively small drops in public sector employment.”

Prof Tony Travers of the LSE provides one explanation: London’s rapidly rising population. For many public services, such as schools and the NHS, spending is allocated on a population basis. Scott Lavery of Sheffield University points to spending on transport, arts and culture that is focused disproportionally on London.

I think there are two further explanations.

First, local government has been hit harder by cuts than the mainly London-based Whitehall departments. And local government in the midlands and north have been hit much harder than Councils in the South East.

Second, even within central Government departments and agencies, more jobs have been lost outside London and the South East. According to the IFS civil service employment in London has fallen by 11% since 2010, compared to 17% across the UK as a whole. Many of the non-London central government functions that have been abolished, such of the Regional Development Agencies and Government Offices for the Regions, had a high economic multiplier. They employed people in high-level jobs, and directed spend into local economies, benefiting supply chains in the private sector (as well as of course realising benefits on the ground).

So what does this mean for cities and regions, and the north-divide in the future?

First, the geography of future public sector job losses will have significant implications. Austerity is here to stay regardless of the outcome of the general election. The Office for Budget Responsibility estimate a further 1 million public sector jobs will be cut in the next parliament.

Second, there would be appear to be a strong case for a more radical approach to relocation of the public sector away from London. The relocation of the BBC to Salford, the Environment Agency to Bristol, the Met Office to Exeter, and parts of the NHS head office functions to Leeds have had huge benefits to those cities. So far, Ed Balls has indicated that this would be a priority for a Labour Government. However the debate has not picked up pace.

Third, there needs to be a more nuanced debate about the role of public sector in the context of “rebalancing” the economy. I think the mantra of “private sector good, public sector bad” (and I speak as someone who has worked in both sectors) is unhelpful. Yes of course we need cities and towns outside London to have stronger private sectors. But we need to recognise that as well providing important services and direct employment, public sector functions (particularly high level ones) create many positive spin-offs that benefit businesses.

Finally, the regional imbalances in public sector job losses strengthen arguments for greater devolution of funding to cities. This is partly about fairness. It is also about effectiveness. The scale of cuts means that we need to drive public sector reform by integrating better policy and investment. Cities, not Whitehall, are best placed to do this, for example achieving integration between areas such as health and social care, and initiatives to end unemployment, skills and employment related benefits. Local people and institutions are better placed to make decisions about their areas than a civil service that has retrenched to its separate silos and its Whitehall base.

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England’s Regions 2005-15

Improving the economic performance of the north of England is a major policy priority of all the main political parties. Initiatives such as the Northern Powerhouse, Northern Futures, and a commitment to further devolution for cities and city regions have all been announced in recent months, and generated extensive debate and comment.
But it is helpful to step back and take a long-run view of the trends and issues.

In 2004-05, when with Arup, I was the project manager for a study looking at disparities between different parts of the UK in regional economic performance, population change, and spatial development. The project team brought together leading experts in economic forcasting, demography and strategic land use planning. The report of the study, Regional Futures: England’s Regions in 2030? was published almost exactly ten years ago. http://www.southwest-ra.gov.uk/media/SWRA/RSS%20Documents/Technical%20Documents/Regional_Futures_Report.pdf

The report sought to tell some “home truths” about the UK economy. Its findings, which generated comment in the national press (see www.economicsuk.com/blog/000199.html), were not particularly popular with some at the time. It argued that there were significant variations in the economic strength of different parts of the UK. Whilst differences within regions were in some cases a great as those between them, the report identified the scale of a north-south divide.

Ten-years on it is interesting to look at the main conclusions and predictions of the report.

1. The impact of changes in public spending.

The report forecast that there would be a future economic slowdown creating pressure on public spending, and this would lead to a widening of the north – south divide. It argued that the strong economic performance of many parts of the midlands and the north in the decade before 2004 had been driven primarily by increases in public spending, not underlying strength of the private sector.

Of course nobody forecast the financial crisis in 2008, and the severity of reductions in public expenditure that followed. In the towns and cities in the north, midlands and parts of the South West the public sector forms a larger proportion of the economy than it does in London and the South East. They have therefore been hit hard as a result of spending cuts. With austerity and further public sector job losses to continue, regardless of the result of the general election, growth in private sector jobs will be needed just to enable the towns and cities outside London and the South East to stand still.

2.  Structural economic change

We predicted that employment in manufacturing would continue to decline, and financial and business services would continue to grow in London and the South, and also in the main regional cities.

Whilst manufacturing employment has, in line with long term trends, continued to decline, manufacturing is now seen as a more important part of the UK’s economic future than it was in 2005. The financial crisis demonstrated the folly of over reliance on the financial services sector. Manufacturing remains an important part of the economy, for example in the city of Leeds there are almost 30,000 manufacturing jobs, and around 140,000 across the wider city region. Manufacturing has modernised rapidly with the rise of advanced and innovative manufacturing characterised by increasing emphasis on research and development, collaboration with universities, a more skilled workforce, high quality product design, strong export performance, and success in selling associated services (manu-services).

However some commentators, such as Andrew Sentence, have recently argued that the mantra of “rebalancing” the economy has led to us under-appreciated the importance of financial and business services to non-London cities (see: http://pwc.blogs.com/economics_in_business/2014/11/separating-myth-from-reality-in-the-uk-regions.html). Nowhere is this more the case than Leeds (the largest UK concentration of financial and business services jobs) where growth in these sectors, along with digital, headquarters and health sector is driving rapid jobs growth in Leeds City Centre (see the recent report by Centre for Cities: http://www.centreforcities.org/publication/leeds-city-centre/)

3.  Continued growth, success and housing pressures in London

We predicted that the economy of London would grow faster than the rest of the UK, London would continue to act as a magnet for international and domestic migration, but would not deliver the housing growth to support its growth.

All of which has proved correct. Centre for Cities have highlighted recently the way London sucks in young, talented migrants. All of which has driven phenomenal levels of population growth in London (see: http://www.centreforcities.org/publication/cities-outlook-2014/). London’s economic success is driving growth across what the late Professor Sir Peter Hall identified in our report as the London and South East Mega-City Region, a functional urban area of 19 million people.

But London, and its surrounding areas have failed to deliver the housing needed to support its growth. This, combined with hot overseas money, has hugely inflated London housing prices. This has led to fears that the high cost of living will stifle London’s economic growth (http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/if-we-dont-act-now-londons-housing-crisis-will-plunge-us-into-recession-9689356.html)

4. Policy interventions

Our report recommended various policy initiatives to improve the economic performance of the midlands and north. These included high speed rail, better commuter transport networks focused on the core cities, measures to attract and retain graduates and skilled workers including urban regeneration, proactive regional planning policies, and public sector relocation away from London.

Of these ideas, high speed rail has emerged as the big idea to help rebalance the national economy. A compelling wider case for HS2 was set out in the recent report by Sir David Higgins, Rebalancing Britain (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/rebalancing-britain-from-hs2-towards-a-national-transport-strategy). But with the possible exception of Manchester, investment in city region commuter transport networks has not kept pace with the huge improvements in London’s transport network.

The importance of cities attracting and retaining skilled graduates was highlighted in the excellent recent Magnet Cities work by KPMG (http://www.kpmg.com/uk/en/topics/magnet-cities/pages/default.aspx) and the City Growth Commission set out some interesting ideas around local graduate career fairs (http://www.citygrowthcommission.com/knowledge-economic-power-how-universities-can-strengthen-city-growth/).

There has been less progress in terms of the other policy ideas. Most previous urban regeneration programmes are no more. The regional planning system and Regional Development Agencies have been abolished. There has not been a concerted effort to relocate Government functions from London (although Ed Balls has been developing proposals on this: http://www.birminghampost.co.uk/news/regional-affairs/well-tell-civil-servants-move-8185356).

The big recent development, which we did not predict, was the consensus on the need for greater devolution to cities and city regions. Lord Heseltine’s report No Stone Unturned report (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/no-stone-unturned-in-pursuit-of-growth) set out the scale of change that could be possible. The Labour party have also set out bold proposals (http://www.yourbritain.org.uk/uploads/editor/files/Adonis_Review.pdf). And the Liberal Democrats, with the Deputy Prime Minister leading the charge, have also made the case for devolution (http://www.libdems.org.uk/nick_clegg_northern_cities_should_be_freed_from_the_stifling_grip_of_whitehall).

What is clear ten years on is that the issue of regional disparities in economic performance may have changed in nature, but they have increased in importance. How to strengthen the economic performance of the north, how to ensure our cities and city regions grow to their full potential, and how to accommodate London’s growth, and the capital’s relationship with the rest of the UK, will remain big questions over the coming months and years.

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“More planning is needed not less” – Professor Sir Peter Hall (1932 – 2014)

Whilst on holiday a few weeks ago I heard the sad news that Professor Sir Peter Hall had died. The world of town planning, transport, economic development and urban policy is a poorer place as a result.

There have been several obituaries published (the best one I have read is here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/11008953/Professor-Sir-Peter-Hall-obituary.html). Peter was a colossus of the world of town planning and urban policy. He was prolific and highly relevant in his work. For those that met him and worked with him he was kind whilst challenging and absolutely infectious in his enthusiasm. In an era when too many academics, “urbanists”, and town planners talk and write in theoretical constructs and impenetrable jargon, he had an ability to communicate and write well and clearly, and to genuinely influence the real world.

His ideas, many of them considered bold and outlandish at the time, often became reality. Peter was hugely influential in developing the original visions for projects such as the Thames Gateway, London’s Docklands, Stansted as London’s third Airport, Enterprise Zones, the M25, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (which made enabled the regeneration of Kings Cross and Stratford, and thus made London 2012 possible), Crossrail, HS2, Garden Cities, and plans for better East-West rail across the north.

It was Peter in his Paper Heathrow – A Retirement Plan (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/planners-call-for-heathrow-to-retire-479971.html) who first suggested a new London Airport in the Thames Estuary long before the phrase “Boris Island” had been invented (he would have been turning in his grave this week as the Davies Commission ruled out this bold option and instead opted for the muddling-though Heathrow solution).

I had the pleasure of working with Peter on several projects. His vision, foresight and knowledge helped develop the concept of the Thames Gateway as one of Europe’s most significant regeneration projects. I worked with him early in my career on an economic strategy for the Thames Gateway, and later when advising Government on where to prioritise investment in growth projects in the area. I remember a seminar in which senior Civil Servants sat in awe as he displayed a combination of broad strategic insight with encyclopaedic knowledge of the issues on the ground.

Peter cared deeply about the north-south divide and in particular the plight of places such as his hometown of Blackpool. I worked with him on a report in 2005 which predicted that future public spending cuts would lead to the London and South East economy pulling away from the rest of the UK (see: http://www.economicsuk.com/blog/000199.html, and http://www.southwest-ra.gov.uk/media/SWRA/RSS%20Documents/Technical%20Documents/Regional_Futures_Report.pdf). This was not a popular or common view at the time, but proved to be accurate. I also worked with him on a project to inform the development of a housing policy for the cities of the north of England, which recognised the growth potential for many existing neighbourhoods and the need to improve their quality of place (see: http://www.regen.net/article/606314/damning-critique-housing-policy).

Peter had a huge passion for railways, and generated lots of bold ideas. This could be a problem. I remember once expecting written input on international comparisons and strategic insights for east London, only to be sent a detailed paper on signalling and service patterns on the North London and Barking to Gospel Oak Lines! But whilst my economic strategy now gathers dust on a shelf, his idea of a high quality London Overground orbital rail service is now a hugely successful reality (see: http://www.economist.com/news/britain/21587223-how-one-railway-line-helped-change-way-londoners-commute-loop). I remember him being uncharacteristically quiet during one meeting on the challenges of connectivity in the Thames Gateway. At the end he handed me a piece of paper (which carelessly I have since lost) on which he’d sketched a plan for extending the Jubilee Line from North Greenwich to Ebbsfleet to open up a series of major development sites.

Recently Peter argued that to maximise the economic benefits of HS2 we need to integrate it with better local and regional rail networks, a point that has been grasped firmly now by Sir David Higgins. Earlier this year he asked me to speak at a seminar http://www.sintropher.eu/sites/default/files/images/editors/Conference_Proceedings/Seminar%20proceedings%20final%20version%20rs.pdf) which looked at this topic and the issue of how we value (or undervalue) transport investment.

Peter was 82 when he died. In his final weeks and months his work became even more prolific (he published hundreds of articles and books during his life). He was always willing to argue against prevailing orthodoxies when necessary (as a Member of Lord Rogers Urban Taskforce, he refused to put his name to the recommendation that our housing growth needs could be met without building on greenfield land). But there was a real urgency in his last few months. He railed against the emergence of a prevailing view that town planning was a problem and a barrier to growth. In his final book “Good Cities, Better Lives” he argued the UK has much to learn from cities in France, Germany and Scandanavia in long term planning for growth, regeneration and liveability (http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/jan/17/uk-planning-expert-peter-hall-britain-wrong).

Whilst it is difficult to sum up concisely his work and influence, I would point to the title of one of his articles last year, More Planning is Needed, Not Less, (http://www.planningresource.co.uk/article/1212381/context—planning-needed-not-less), and the final sentence of that article: “What’s needed is the will and the imagination.”

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