Part of the problem with the ‘levelling up’ agenda as commonly reported on is a lack of definition.
It is an international issue:
The term originally referred to people not places: older, working-class white voters who lacked advanced qualifications and skills and were estranged from the cosmopolitan social values of liberal professionals and the mainstream parties. Following the Brexit referendum of 2016, this formulation was extended to the ‘left-behind’ places in which such voters were concentrated, and we have since seen the historical allegiance of post-industrial areas in the North and Midlands of England to the Labour Party fracture, leading to the Conservatives’ capture of so-called ‘Red Wall’ seats.
Yet, this political shift is part of a broader international trend as former industrial regions and rural areas have emerged as hotbeds of political discontent and populist support, evident in patterns of support for the Vote Leave in the UK, Donald Trump in the United States, the Rassemblement National (National Rally) and Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) in France and the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany. Different terms for disaffected and disadvantaged areas have gained currency in different countries: ‘left-behind’ places in the UK, ‘forgotten’ territories in France and Italy, Abgehȁngte Regionen (suspended regions) in Germany, and ‘legacy’ cities, ‘rustbelt’ and ‘frostbelt’ in the US.
We can see from such places a certain narrative, old jobs go, young people leave, older people are left behind with a stronger dependency ratio, services, and retail becomes harder to sustain, cycle of decline.
A classic example of this is Corby, where the closure of the steelworks led to a cycle of decline and new industry led to its reversal.
However this narrative is too simplistic. Hartlepool for example has moderate population increase and high employment growth. Can it really be said to be ‘left behind’.
Very few places have both declining population and employment, like Whitehaven and Barrow-in-Furness for example -see this map from the ONS.
I think the answer lies in looking at the solutions to depopulation and stripping it out. Either you have new people moving into an area, or new jobs and then people move in. Numerous programmes around the world have reversed depopulation by giving away free land and buildings and encouraging internal and international migration – free old hilltop towns in Italy to small towns on the Great Prairies to small islands and remote areas in Scotland and Ireland giving away derelict cottages.
Now you might say but according to the dominent narrative immigration was seen as the problem in ‘left behind’ areas. See it another way were it not for in migration these areas would have seen a cycle of decline. With a decline of migration from Europe these areas could enter a cycle of decline. Take this report from Global Futures.
In every year since 2001, a large number of local authorities would have experienced population decline if it weren’t for immigration. Immigration has been particularly important to sustaining the working-age population in many areas: in some years, such as 2012 and 2013, more than three quarters of all local authorities would have seen their working-age population shrink without immigration.
This is striking table, without immigration large areas will go into a cycle of dependency and population decline.
So let me try to define a ‘left behind’ area – one where when immigration is stripped out would have a declining working age population.
There are only two solutions, either increase international working age in migration by incentivizing new jobs in these areas and relaxing work visa rules; or give away land or buildings to ‘homesteaders’ from areas with low dependency rations (most cities) increasing spending power and hence creating jobs.
I suggest as an instrument of regional policy upskilling is very poor value for money. It takes too long and upskilled youth without jobs locally will just move out more quickly. Much better to move in people with skills and for the extra spending power to create secondary and tertiary labour market effects.
Given that increased international in migration is in the short term off the agenda, though prolonged national and regional decline will eventually see common sense, if areas like South Oxfordshire start seeing falling population and local services shutting down as a result the penny will drop; we have as a default solution the homesteading solution, which we have already seen with some success in projects in Liverpool, and the ‘Guardian Houses’ projects in Leipzig where students are given free empty houses in return for renovating them.
Of course some avocado Greens advocate ‘Degrowth’ and would welcome less people. Sadly its been tried and failed, such as the East German ‘Shrinking Cities’ movement, swiftly discredited by the rapid growth and repopulation of Leipzig and the total political failure of politicians that advocated it. Now the buzzword is regrowth not degrowth.
These could take many forms but could include Homes England buying large sites in places like North Lincolnshire and offering plots or buildings for token prices to young people, from wherever in the UK locally or from elsewhere, who have a business plan to set up a new business, home or workplace based.
In Northern Core Cities you can often undertake a matched pair analysis of the impact of different planning policies on housing supply and cost.
Take Sheffield and Manchester. Both great university cities (Sheffield 2, Manchester 5) Sheffield around 48,000 students living in city (and not living at home), Manchester something like 99,000. Both areas have districts which are very much ‘student ghettos’ in the South of the City (historically large Victorian Middle Class Homes), Manchester Fallowfield and Withington , Sheffield, Eccesall Road and Broomhall, both have quarters where the only shops and restaurants serve Chinese student populations. But in terms of purpose built student accommodation they couldn’t be more different. Central Sheffield has seen 22,000 purpose built student rooms built in the decade prior to 2019, and looking out of my window there must be 4-5,000 more under construction. Manchester by contrast, despite having one of the highest student populations in Europe, and one of the highest development rates for high density general needs housing, has a historically very restrictive core strategy policy H12, it has also restricted student housing in the University of Manchester Oxford Road corridor, until very recently, to maximise space for university expansion. Manchester City centre has seen around 1,800 purpose built units in the City Centre and over 1,000 net additions in redevelopment of a purpose built complex in Fallowfield. Since a shift in stance since 2018 more purpose built units are comping on stream in the Oxford Road corridor (over 5,000 units consented) though few are yet completed.
The reasons for the difference in policy relates to the collapse in demand for student accommodation after the global financial crisis and worries that rising tuition fees after 2010 would lead to an oversupply of student accommodation. This didn’t happen as an influx of Chinese students buoyed demand with a strong cultural preference for purpose built city centre high density apartments. Sheffield though never updated its local plan (the CIty centre plan) due to conflicts with its pro development lead cllr which we have covered on here before. Arguably the policy was too lax, too little non student housing in and around Sheffield City centre. In Manchester there was also concern aboutr loss of Council tax revenue. Though it has to be understood that purpose built to rent general housing goes over to wealthier students when there is a shortfall in supply. So overall Sheffield has built around twice the purpose built stident units despite having half the number of students.
Manchester now admits
Manchester is one of the most expensive cities in the UK for PBSA. A more diverse pipeline of new PBSA is now
needed to help stabilise rental growth. It is critical to ensure there is a residential market, which meets the needs of students at an affordable price.
And is reviewing policy H12.
Of course if you restrict students units wealthier students will take over the general housing stock and less wealth students overcrowd. If you allow them then former overcrowded ‘student gehttos’ will return to family and professional stock (what is termed filtering), as we have seen in South Manchester and far more so in South Sheffield. This has a transformational effect on student living conditions. For this reason I see little policy justification on restricting student housing by need. Let the market decide, its just housing, and ensure a real mix by localised policies according to the property mix in individual communities. There is also a case for ensuring that university expansion is matched by policies on linked student housing and staff expansion – as successfully shown in Cambridge and seriously lacking in Oxford.
The biggest difference between Manchester and Sheffield is rents. Sheffield where I live it is around 85 PPPW (Inc bills) throughout the city. In Manchester according toi UNIHOMES it is around 175 PPPW (inc Bills) with radical variations throughout the city with premium sites around Oxford Road attracting 100-400/month more.
This perfectly controlled experiment (after all incomes of students are the same) puts the lie that housing cost is inelastic to supply and is really driven by finance etc. If you build twice the numbers of units per head of population rents are halved.