• Spatial Inequalities within the UK Spatial Inequalities within the UK

06 October 2019

Tackling Spatial Inequalities within the UK – how can planning policy help?

This blog follows on from my previous blogs over the last few weeks, which have set out the nature of the UK’s spatially unbalanced economy, and the various implications this has on economic performance and social wellbeing – as well as the political and constitutional implications.

In this third and final instalment, I look at how planning policy can help to alleviate these issues, and specifically consider the recommendations set out in the UK2070 Commission’s report Fairer and Stronger – rebalancing the UK economy.

The solution requires much more than small-scale measures

As I explained in the first blog, the concept of spatial inequality is not a new phenomenon and as a result, it is a concept that has been the source of public policy debate, and government initiatives (albeit to varying levels of commitment), over the last century and more.

For some economists, the relative success of certain geographies over others simply alludes to market forces at work, and the efficient allocation of labour and capital based on market demand. From this perspective, it is a phenomenon that is at most, to be encouraged, and at least, to be left unhindered. However, there is of course a plethora of economic and social arguments that undermine this hypothesis, not least the inequality feedback loop as highlighted in part 2, which is a type of market failure, and thus requires external action to remedy.

What is clear is that addressing the problem will require widespread, fundamental changes rather than piecemeal tinkering.

So, what can be done?

There are a number of recommendations put forward by various industry bodies and academics which will look to rebalance the economy and reduce our dependence on London and the south east. These range from a need for a systematic and comprehensive framework of political and organisational decentralisation, including greater power and funding for Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), to the creation of a new national fund which is ring fenced for infrastructure and transport investment in the north of England.

However, from a planning perspective, the UK2070 Commission has proposed that the UK develops a spatial plan to guide its future development. This is an interesting recommendation, which we look at in more detail below…

A Spatial Plan for England

The concept of a spatial plan has arisen, partly due to the fact that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have spatial frameworks that play a key role in helping to shape their future development. England however does not.

As a result, there is no shared common understanding or strategy in place to address the development needs across England as a whole. It is argued this is consequentially resulting in the imbalances highlighted in part 1 growing due to the allocation of resources being left to market forces. The result is a “booming” capital and south east based on the locational preferences of firms and individuals, and sub-optimal performance elsewhere.

The UK2070 Commission argues that a Plan for England could help to alleviate this by providing a long-term framework for major infrastructure investment and development. In this way national economic hubs can be identified and connected, and resources and funding allocated to priority areas. Existing or planned cross regional initiatives could also be combined.

The result would be better sub-national strategic planning, helping to take forward and integrate decisions that are currently being taken at a national level on housing, infrastructure and environmental issues. This, in theory, would improve the allocation of resources, helping to boost productivity, and therefore economic prosperity and growth. This in turn will attract more capital investment and labour, boosting productivity further… and so on…Thereby initiating (in theory) its own positive feedback loop. In essence it will look to address the current market failure.

Such outcomes are supported by recent research undertaken by our new colleagues at WSP who have been assessing how the way our town and cities are designed can impact on productivity. They have identified the concept of Clustering (described as a geographical concentration of related industries) and Connectivity (described as the ease of access between two systems including digital and transport) as two of the three main drivers to improve the productivity of local geographies. More effective sub-national strategic planning would be able to reinforce these concepts.

Conclusion

While a Spatial Plan does not represent a silver bullet solution to the existing spatial inequalities, rather part of a suite of interventions which include fiscal measures, it is clear planning has an important role in tackling spatial inequalities and its associated economic and social impacts.

A National Plan is certainly worth further consideration and thought and is a concept which has been supported by various bodies in the past including the RTPI and TCPA. The challenge is to convince the current government this is a policy worth further consideration, something which has not in recent history been easy.