Rebalancing the UK economy and the role of citizens’ organisations

The downsides of London’s widely heralded role as the ‘engine’ of the British economy are largely borne by citizens, but there may be signs of change in the way that community groups in the capital have begun to make themselves heard – offering experience from which all in the wider metropolitan region could learn, says Michael Edwards

[Contribution to a special issue on Planning in the London Metropolitan Region of the journal Town and Country Planning, guest-edited by Duncan Bowie. The whole issue is available from the TCPA here. ]

We have lived through the first two mayoralties of the Greater London Authority (GLA), governed by the imperative that the scale and nature of London’s growth cannot be questioned and by the fantasy that the space requirements of this growth can be met within the Greater London boundary and without attrition of the Metropolitan Green Belt.

The growth imperative remains widely unchallenged, but the palpable impossibility of the containment fantasy now seems to be accepted by professionals and by many of those in power. Housing market demand knows no bounds and spills ever further into surrounding English counties, spreading the affordability crisis far and wide. London local housing authorities, desperate to meet their homelessness and other obligations, are increasingly placing their tenants wherever they can find space cheaper than the private rented stock of London.

Within Greater London there has been a severe democratic deficit as financial, infrastructure and real-estate interests have been able to set the agenda for the planning of the city, reaping rents, capital value growth and profits from the concentration of building and civil engineering work in the capital. The conventional measures of GDP and GVA show London as a ‘success’ and feed the narrative that the city is the ‘engine’ of the British economy – this despite the omission of environmental costs from those measures, the fragility of the rentier economy being produced, and the somewhat illusory character of the growth component which comprises rents and the imputed rents from the growth of value of the owner-occupied housing stock.

The downside of London’s fabled agglomeration economies is largely borne by citizens in the form of high rents and prices for housing, high travel costs, air quality which seriously breaches the law, displacement and disruption of communities and enterprises and the dispossession of tenants and leaseholders in erstwhile social housing. It was no surprise when the Resolution Foundation analysed median household incomes in UK regions since 2007-08 and found that London is superficially a rich region with a strong post-crash recovery but that, after paying housing costs, Londoners were by no means the richest and had seen the worst real income falls in the entire UK.1

The forms of democracy we inherited have not enabled these oppressions to be voiced effectively in policy-making. But there are signs of change as the victims of Britain’s uniquely dysfunctional housing system get organised (Priced Out, Generation Rent, Renters’ Rights London, London Tenants Federation, Radical Housing Network) and broader campaigns emerge (Take Back the City, Reclaim London). On specifically planning issues, Just Space has grown to be a strong network of local and London-wide citizen organisations, supporting each other (in the absence of any public funding) to make effective use of the participation opportunities which planning, environmental and local government law provides. It has just published its proposals for the next London Plan to the new Mayor and Assembly: a big achievement for a city of 8 or 9 million Towards a community-led plan for London: policy directions and proposals. It works in effective co-operation with the long-established London Forum of Civic and Amenity Societies, finding much common ground despite a different class composition and working method.2

It has been hard enough to scale up community activism in London from its long-established neighbourhood scale to span Greater London. How might it extend even more widely in the coming years? In some ways the imperative is for citizen organisations in all the UK’s regions and countries to co-operate since —as in so many European countries— it is the widening disparities at the national scale that need to be challenged and changed. The multi-scale structure of the Social Forum movement of the early 2000s would have been an ideal framework for these grass-roots collaborations, but that whole system seems to have wilted, at least in the UK. In the world of political parties, perhaps the rejuvenated Labour Party might become helpful, as is the Green Party to some extent. The New Economics Foundation (NEF), IPPR North and the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) are valuable beacons of sanity and analysis, but none of them is more than an infrastructure for social movements.

As things stand in 2016 it appears that we shall be getting officer-level and member-level collaborations between the London and nearby local authorities. Representative democracy in these Home Counties is weakened by the first past the post electoral system and, as a Londoner, I would guess that working class and low-/middle-income communities there feel even less empowered than their London counterparts. At least in London there is an element of proportional representation in the London Assembly which has made that body, while still toothless, a remarkably effective sounding board and debating site compared with most local councils. We shall see.

On the other hand, some of the geographical wheeling and dealing is likely to be done by Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), even more removed from grass-roots accountability than local councils. Some older readers will remember, however, that the abolition of the Greater London Council in 1986 was followed by 16 years of similar informal consultations among London boroughs in LPAC (the London Planning Advisory Committee). That system was widely expected to be an ineffectual talking shop, but it surprised everyone by building some strong consensus positions, often quite progressive, and leaning on national governments. It was democratically accountable only in the most indirect sense and scarcely engaged directly with citizens, but it did have some achievements. Could today’s informal local authority collaboration develop the strength needed to enforce planned new urbanisation on reluctant shires?

A rebalancing between UK regions would take time, and presupposes a release from the damaging orthodoxies of neo-liberalism. However, the potential for multi-scale planning of regional development in Southern England is immense, the need for it is urgent, and progress could perhaps be made. The experience of community groups in London suggests that planning should be guided by the following principles:

  • reducing the need to travel (and for road freight movement), especially by private vehicles – and doubly so for diesel vehicles;
  • meeting the backlog of unmet housing need and keeping up with the growth of need and demand, providing for more refugees and migrants; and
  • respecting environmental limits, slowing climate change (while preparing for it to accelerate), and making the most of highly valued urban and rural landscapes.

Progress on these fronts will be a major challenge. The vested interests in high and rising house prices and rents (the financial sector, landowners, and many owner-occupiers and professions) are powerful. Infrastructure builders and investors are interested in heavy radial railways to permit London’s housing deficits to be met by dormitory settlements along the lines – rather than in the less glamorous job of reducing the transport damage caused by daily life in our spaced-out polycentric city region. Thinking in London’s City Hall seems to favour shifting employment growth out to the Home Counties on the grounds that this would be politically easier than shifting housing growth out. That might be expedient, but it does not sound like a reduction of the need to travel, and it threatens to exacerbate the crisis in workspace availability within London, driven by inflated housing land prices and the dismantling of controls which have kept land use classes as separate property markets for 70 years.

We shall be regaled with pleas for a more polycentric system of settlements within and beyond London, and the heroic ‘Polynet’ research of Peter Hall and Kathy Pain will be cited in support. But their analysis drew attention to the environmentally alarming scale of travel – especially car travel – generated by our dispersed settlement system. Growth of employment and housing across the wider region will have to be very systematically modelled and managed if it is to strengthen local economies without growth of car dependence. An opportunistic splatter of new towns, new villages, urban extensions and transit-oriented developments could be the worst of worlds.

Furthermore, within London, powerful market forces driven by a financialised housing price boom have combined with de facto planning practices to create an increasingly centralised structure of employment growth, eating away at diverse local service and manufacturing economies. London’s greatest 21st century achievement of reversing the growth of car-dependence will be very hard to roll out across the wider regions, and the ambition of current policy debates does not seem adequate. It is hard to be optimistic just now.

Michael Edwards is a Teaching Fellow at the Bartlett School of Planning, University College London and a co-organiser of the Just Space network. The views expressed are personal.


1 A. Corlett, D. Finch and M. Whittaker: Living Standards 2016: The Experiences of Low to Middle Income Households in Downturn and Recovery. Resolution Foundation, Feb. 2016.

2 This article draws with gratitude on the author’s very stimulating years of work with the Just Space network of London community, activist and ‘voluntary’ organisations seeking to influence planning within the GLA boundary. It is in no way written on behalf of Just Space, indeed some of the issues raised here have not yet been discussed within the network. Thanks to the TCPA for triggering these reflections, which may thus enter the network’s debates. [later note: some of the issues raised here are discussed in the Just Space Economy and Planning Group’s Commentary on the Draft Economic Evidence Base for London Planning prepared by GLA Economics. ]