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"Bulldozing the North and Concreting Over the South"? The United Kingdom government’s Sustainable Communities Plan

"Raser le Nord et bétonner le Sud"? Le plan du gouvernement du Royaume-Uni pour le développement durable
Stephen Hall et Paul Hickman
p. 143-152


Cet article propose un commentaire critique du "Sustainable Communities Plan", programme du gouvernement du Royaume-Uni. Celui-ci, développé en février 2003, aborde deux problèmes contrastés concernant le marché du logement (demande excessive dans la région prospère du Sud et faible demande dans le Nord en pleine désindustrialisation). Cette analyse montre que le gouvernement appréhende cette situation comme autant de problèmes disjoints au lieu de les considérer comme une unique question de développement régional inégal et au risque d'exacerber les inégalités inter-régionales existantes. En réponse à la crise du logement, le gouvernement développe l'offre dans les régions du Sud, au lieu de réduire les pressions inflationnistes, et de redistribuer la croissance économique vers le Nord et le Midlands. Ce choix aggrave la dégradation environnementale au Sud sans fournir, par ailleurs, aux régions du Nord et des Midlands les moyens nécessaires au traitement des problèmes économiques et de logement. L'article comporte cinq parties:
1) Une analyse du dévelop-pement économique régional en Angleterre démontrant qu'économique-ment, sur le long terme, la région du Sud domine le reste du pays;
2) Un questionnement sur les inégalités du marché du logement: d'une part, faiblesse de l'offre de la région de Londres et du Sud-Est et, d'autre part, faiblesse de la demande dans les régions du Nord et du Midlands;
3) Une présentation du "Sustainable Communities Plan", et ses propositions pour le Sud (par exemple la désignation de quatre nouvelles zones de croissance dans lesquelles de nouveaux logements seront concentrés), le Nord et les Midlands (par exemple la stratégie secondaire "The Northern Way" développé en février 2004);
4) Une critique du programme;
5) Les conclusions.

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Notes de la rédaction

The authors are grateful to Alan Murie and Chris Collinge for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper and to Ed Ferrari for providing Figure 1.

Texte intégral

1The so-called "New Labour" government, elected in 1997, has presided over a proliferation of initiatives designed to promote economic competitiveness and social inclusion in the English regions, major conurbations and disadvantaged neighbourhoods (DETR, 1997; 2000a; SEU, 2001; ODPM, 2003a). These measures have prompted a renewed and vigorous debate on the nature of spatial disparities in England.

2This paper provides a critical commentary on the government’s most recent strategy, the Sustainable Communities Plan. This document, published in February 2003, seeks to address two different housing market problems, "low demand" in parts of the North and Midlands and excess demand in the South of England1. The government fails to acknowledge that these problems are the consequence of uneven regional economic development. Its response to the housing crisis in the South is to expand supply to support its high value added service sectors, considered to be of fundamental national importance. The alternative of reducing inflationary pressures by re-distributing economic growth to the North and Midlands is not considered. As a consequence, the government may be criticised for potentially exacerbating existing inter-regional disparities, permitting further environmental erosion in the South, and failing to provide the North and Midlands with the means to deal with their particular economic and housing problems.

3The paper comprises five further sections: 1) an analysis of uneven regional economic development in England, focusing on the tendency for the South to out-perform the rest of the country economically; 2) an analysis of uneven housing market outcomes, focusing on the supply side constraints in the South and low demand in areas of the North and Midlands; 3) a description of the Sustainable Communities Plan, focusing on its contrasting proposals for the South and the North and Midlands; 4) a critique of the strategy; and, 5) some concluding observations.

Regional economic disparities in England

4In this section, we examine contemporary inter and intra-regional economic inequalities in England. Conventional wisdom posits the existence of a profound disparity between the (declining, manufacturing-oriented) North and (prosperous, service-oriented) South (Townroe and Martin, 1992; Hudson and Williams, 1995; Counsell and Haughton, 2003). This interpretation has prevailed since the 1920s (House of Commons, 2003). However, the Blair government has consistently challenged the North South divide thesis. It argues that the disparity within regions is at least as great as that between them (Cabinet Office, 1999). This interpretation is politically expedient for the government, for reasons that will be discussed in section five.

5The government’s case can be supported (to an extent) by reference to the English Indices of Deprivation 20042 (ODPM, 2004a). Table 1 illustrates the proportion of lower level Super Output Areas3 (SOAs) in each of the nine English regions4 (from left to right: North East, North West, Yorkshire and the Humber, East Midlands, West Midlands, East, London, South East, South West) that fall within the most deprived quintile of SOAs in England. It is, indeed, apparent that disadvantaged areas are found in all regions, with one of the most significant concentrations in London. However, London is an anomaly as its ‘world city’ economy (Buck et al, 2002) generates extreme divisions between affluence and poverty.

6Notwithstanding the valid arguments that pockets of affluence exist in the North and Midlands (e.g. Chester, Harrogate, Worcester, York) and concentrations of disadvantage exist in the South (especially London), the evidence for the existence of a profound North South divide remains compelling. Indeed, it has been argued that there exists a direct correlation between regional wealth and distance from London (Gudgin, 1996; House of Commons, 2003). Table 2 provides an index of average regional prosperity (measured by Gross Value Added - GVA - per capita)5 for the English regions in 1997 (the first year of the Labour government’s mandate) and 2001. The disparity between the South and the rest of the country is immediately apparent. In 2001, GVA per capita in London was almost 175% the level of the North East. Moreover, it is apparent that regional disparities, according to this measure, have increased slightly during the period of office of the Labour government.

7Unsurprisingly, significant disparities exist in terms of labour market outcomes. Table 3 provides an illustration of employment rates (i.e. the proportion of adults, of working age, in paid employment) in the English regions in 1997 and 2003. London is, again, an anomaly. Its low aggregate employment rate reflects its "world city" labour market, polarised between core, professional workers and peripheral, unskilled labour (Buck et al, op. cit.). However, a disparity between the South and the North and Midlands is still evident, albeit one that has been decreasing slightly during the period of office of the Labour government. In 2003, the employment rate of the South East was more than 10% higher than in the North East. It has been estimated that more than one million additional jobs are required to raise the employment rate of the North and Midlands to that of the South East (Fothergill, 2001).

Table 1 : Regional Concentration of Most Deprived 20% of SOAs (lower level) in England. Source : ODPM, 2004a










Proportion of SOAs in most  deprived 20% in England










Table 2 : Gross Value Added (GVA) Per Capita in the English Regions 1997 and 2001 (UK = 100). Source : Regional Trends






























Table 3 : Employment Rates (%) in the English Regions 2003. Source : Regional Trends






























Table 4 : Average property price (£1,000s – current prices) in the English regions first quarter 1997 and 2004. Source : Land Registry

January/March 1997

January/March 2004
















East Anglia












Regional housing market disparities in England

8A corollary of the differing economic performance of the English regions has been the fragmentation of the housing market. In this section, we consider contemporary inter and intra-regional disparities in housing markets in England. These disparities have widened to such an extent that it is perhaps no longer helpful to talk in terms of a national housing market. This is clearly demonstrated by table 4, which provides an illustration of average house prices in the English regions6 for the period January to March in 1997 and 2004. In broad terms, table 4 reveals a clear North South divide with regard to the performance of England’s regional housing markets, with those in the South of the country exhibiting significantly higher house prices than their counterparts in the North and Midlands. For example, in 2004, the average house-price in London was two and a half times that of the North.

9The inflated house prices in the South have been attributed to the buoyancy of the regional economies; an acute disparity between housing demand and supply (GLA 2000, 2003; Mayor of London, 2004); and, London’s "world city" type housing market (Buck et al, 2002), characterised by over-consumption of housing, epitomised by "buy to let" and pied à terre investments of corporate interests, pension funds and high-income individuals.

10However, it would be dangerous to characterise the North as being exclusively low cost and the South high cost. Indeed, as Table 4 indicates, average house prices have virtually doubled in all regions since the 1997 election. Moreover, the regional average house prices mask significant differences at a local and neighbourhood level. For example, prices vary significantly across London, with the average house price in two inner boroughs - Kensington and Chelsea (£734 756) and Newham (£181 923) - differing by more than half a million pounds (HM Land Registry, 2004 - Similarly, house-prices differ significantly across the northern regions with pockets of high-price housing evident at both the local level, including Chester, York, Harrogate and parts of Leeds (the latter three forming a high-cost housing market increasingly known as the "Golden Triangle"), and at the neighbourhood level (Cole et al, 2004).

11Nevertheless, the process of uneven regional economic development has undoubtedly prompted a divergence between regional housing markets in England during the past decade. A legacy of this trend has been the emergence of the problems of low demand in the North and housing shortages, high house prices and the associated problems of affordability and homelessness, in the South.

12The exact nature of the problem of low demand is disputed. The term implies difficulties in letting or selling homes because either: there are not enough households in the area looking for homes (typically, a consequence of migration - urban to rural or North to South - prompted by de-industrialisation); or, it is of a type, or in a particular type of neighbourhood, which has specific problems (e.g. obsolete housing stock, anti social behaviour) which make it very unpopular relative to other housing available (Bramley and Pawson, 2000). The symptoms of low demand include high void and turnover rates for all tenures, small or non-existent waiting lists plus high refusal rates for tenancy offers in the social rented sector, and low and declining house prices in the private sector (ibid., 2000). These symptoms create a degraded and insecure living environment for remaining residents and impose substantial management costs on public authorities. However, some commentators (e.g. Murie et al, 1998) have argued that some of these measures (e.g. turnover) do not necessarily indicate low demand per se but rather a change in residents’ aspirations from, for example, long-term housing to shorter-term accommodation. The term ‘changing demand’ is, therefore, deemed more appropriate (ibid.).

13The symptoms of low demand are not new (Bramley and Pawson, op. cit.), but it is the unprecedented magnitude of the current problem that has warranted the creation of a new terminology. It has been estimated that one million homes are affected nationally (ODPM, op. cit.). Furthermore, whereas the debate, in the past, focused on individual dwellings, there is now an acknowledgement of the broader spatial context. Table 5 provides an illustration of the distribution of low demand7 properties throughout England in April 2003.

Table 5 : Low demand housing (% of stock in low demand) in the English regions April 2003. Source : HIP Statistical Appendix

Local auth.

Housing assoc.


Total stock



















































14Table 5 clearly reveals the (regional) spatial dimension to the phenomenon. The proportion of the total stock affected by low demand in the southern regions has been negligible (less than half of one percent). Conversely, the figures in the North and West Midlands are almost - indeed in excess of in the case of the North West - 10%.

15In England, the social profile of the client base of social housing (i.e. local authority and housing association stock) has narrowed dramatically. Private home ownership has become more attractive and has increased as a proportion of the total housing stock in England from 50% to 70% in the past 30 years (ODPM, op. cit.). In doing so, it has drawn middle-income groups away from social housing, which has become "residualised". Unsurprisingly, therefore, social housing is characterised by higher relative levels of low demand, as illustrated in table 5. In absolute terms, however, the majority - more than 600 000 dwellings or two thirds of the overall total - of low demand housing is in the (much larger) private sector. It appears, then, that the phenomenon is ‘tenure blind’. It is concentrated at the sub-regional and neighbourhood level where it affects all tenure types.

16In the South, regional stakeholders, particularly the Mayor of London and Greater London Authority have argued that weaknesses in the supply-side of the housing market have brought a number of serious problems.

17First, the rate of new house building in the South is deemed inadequate to meet projected demand (GLA, op. cit.; GLA, op. cit.; ODPM, ibid.). In London, for example, it is estimated that some 30 000 new households will form per annum by 2016, generated by natural growth and in-migration from overseas (GLA, op. cit.). However, private sector new build in London presently stands at some 19 000 dwellings per annum (ibid.).

18Second, the shortage of housing in the South has constrained access to the housing market for an increasing proportion of the population. In London, for example, it was estimated, in 2000, that the average property price was 8.6 times the average salary for a nurse, 6.7 times for a teacher, and 5.3 times for a police officer (GLA, op. cit.). This has led to political pressure to do more to assist these "key workers" (GLA, 2003). It is important to note, however, that housing shortages, and the problems that accompany them, are not confined to the South. A recent government commissioned study of housing supply in England, the "Barker Review" (Barker, 2004), recognised that housing shortage was a problem that affected many parts of the UK. Nonetheless, it is in the South that these pressures are felt most keenly.

19Third, there is a substantial backlog of unmet housing demand in the South. It is argued that this has had a negative impact on the most disenfranchised members of society (GLA, op. cit.). London accounts for some 25.9% (30 470 individuals) of homeless people in England, but only 14.6% of the total population (Regional Trends, 2004). This is in addition to more than 100 000 people in temporary, shared or over-crowded accommodation (GLA, 2000). It has been estimated that a further 43 000 new dwellings per annum will be required to eliminate this unmet demand within ten years (ibid.).

The Sustainable Communities Plan

20In this section, we consider the government’s blueprint for tackling the housing crises outlined above, the Sustainable Communities Plan (ODPM, op. cit.). This strategy was launched, with much fanfare, in February 2003. The Sustainable Communities Plan tackles a number of housing related problems. These include:

  • Addressing the housing shortage by accelerating the provision of housing in the South and South Midlands; providing more affordable housing; and, tackling homelessness.

  • Addressing low demand and abandonment.

  • Ensuring the entire social housing stock is of a decent standard by 2010.

  • Promoting "liveability" through investment in the local environment.

  • Protecting the countryside by maximising the use of previously developed sites and increasing house building density.

21Recognising that previous policies - including the Urban White Paper (DETR, 2000) and the National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal (SEU, op. cit.) – lacked potency, the Deputy Prime Minister announced that the Sustainable Communities Plan represented a "step change" in the government’s approach to the problems:

22"We have achieved a great deal, but building on our achievements alone is not enough. We need a step change in our approach. A step change is essential to the tackle the challenges of a rapidly changing population, the needs of the economy, serious housing shortages in the London and the South East and the impact of housing abandonment in places in the North and Midlands" (ODPM, op. cit., p. 3)

23The report outlined plans to tackle the problem of low demand in the North and Midlands through the new Housing Market Renewal Fund (HMRF), considered below. In addition, the government re-affirmed its commitment to other initiatives to tackle the problem indirectly through the attainment of the Decent Homes standard; a "commitment" to bring all "social housing up to a decent standard by 2010, with a third of this improvement taking place by 2004, over which half of which will be in the most deprived areas." (SEU, op. cit., p.40). Local authorities can seek additional investment in their housing stock through three options, all of which require a separation of housing strategy and management responsibilities: Stock transfer (the transfer of local authority stock to independent housing associations able to secure additional private housing investment funds); Arms Length Management Organisations or ALMOs (the transfer of management responsibilities to independent ALMOs - although local authorities remain the legal landlords. High performing ALMOs are eligible for additional government housing investment funds); and, the Private Finance Initiative or PFI (the signing of contractual arrangements between local authorities and private consortia which refurbish and manage the stock for a specified period in return for a fee).

24Like many of the initiatives announced in the Sustainable Communities Plan, the HMRF programme had already been formally launched by the government, in April 2002. Recognising that a strategic response to low demand was needed, the HMRF programme was set up to regenerate the housing markets of nine sub-regions in the North and Midlands. The report notes that these areas - Birmingham and Sandwell; East Lancashire; Humberside; Manchester and Salford; Merseyside; Newcastle and Gateshead; North Staffordshire; Oldham and Rochdale; and South Yorkshire - which account for approximately half the stock affected by low demand (ODPM, ibid.), were, to be the focus for a ten year strategy with an investment of £500 million for the first three years.

25In line with its desire to adopt a step change to the regional housing problems it faced, the government, for the first time, recognised that some local housing markets were so weak that substantial stock demolition represented the only viable course of action. Thus:

26"Pathfinder strategic plans will entail radical and sustained action to replace obsolete housing with modern sustainable accommodation, through demolition and new building or refurbishment. This will mean a better mix of homes, and sometimes fewer homes." (ibid., p.24)

27The first HMRF pathfinder to publish its strategy, Manchester and Salford, for example, has been awarded a government grant of £125 million (to 2006), which provides for the demolition of 1 700 dwellings, the refurbishment of a further 13 400 and the construction of 1 000 family homes (ibid).

28The Sustainable Communities Plan defines the key challenge for the South as follows:

29"To accommodate the economic success of London and the wider South East and ensure that the international competitiveness of the region is sustained, for the benefit of the region, and the whole country" (ibid, p.41).

30The plan, thus, reinforces the government’s view of the South as the strategically crucial economic "engine room" of England.

31The existing Regional Planning Guidance for the South8, RPG9 (DETR, 2001), provides for the construction of 62 000 new homes per annum between 2001 and 2006. However, the recent rate of new housing construction has been inadequate to meet these targets (ODPM, op. cit.). In light of this, the Sustainable Communities Plan proposed a "step change" in the supply of new housing in the South. Accordingly, the government has designated four growth areas, which it considers, collectively, to have the potential to accommodate an additional 200 000 dwellings to 2016 (ibid.). The location of the growth areas is illustrated in figure 1.

32The magnitude and historic significance of the government’s proposals cannot be overstated. As one commentator has argued:

33"If they are fully implemented, the proposals in the Sustainable Communities Plan could amount to a more radical restructuring of the urban geography of the South East than was managed by either the Garden City movement or the post-war New Towns" (Haughton, 2003, p.96).

34The four growth areas are:

  • - Thames Gateway. This area follows the route of the River Thames from Inner-East London to its estuary between Essex and Kent. The Thames Gateway includes a number of disadvantaged communities and the largest concentration of brownfield sites in England. The future development of the area is facilitated by the construction of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (opening in 2007), which will assist in realising the potential of these sites through major mixed-use developments. The Thames Gateway is, perhaps, the most important of the growth areas. Its development is supervised by a dedicated Cabinet Committee, chaired by the Prime Minister.

  • - Milton Keynes and South Midlands. This area follows the route of the M1 motorway from Luton (south) to Corby (north), via Bedford, Northampton and Milton Keynes. The area is located at the intersection of three different regions (East, South East and East Midlands). It is estimated that the area has the potential to accommodate an additional 370 000 homes to 2031.

  • - London-Stansted-Cambridge. This diverse area follows the route of the M11 motorway from London to Cambridge. Cambridge is the location of an internationally important concentration of ICT and biotechnology business clusters whereas the Upper Lea Valley, in North London, is a disadvantaged, former industrial area. It is estimated that the area has the potential to accommodate between 250 000 and 500 000 new dwellings to 2031.

  • - Ashford (Kent). Ashford is by far the smallest of the growth areas. It is also the most geographically circumscribed, being targeted on a single town. Ashford is strategically located on the route of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. It is estimated that the area has the potential to accommodate 31 000 new dwellings to 2031.

35The government has made available £610 million (of which the Thames Gateway accounts for £446 million) over three years for land assembly, brownfield site reclamation, establishing new partnership-based delivery mechanisms, developing affordable housing and providing local infrastructure.

36The emphasis placed on demolition in the North and Midlands and accommodating new growth in the South led to the Sustainable Communities Plan being characterised as a strategy that sought to "bulldoze the North and concrete over the South" (Robson, 2003). For many commentators, the failure of the plan to address inter-regional economic disparities represented a fundamental flaw. As Robson notes:

37"There are two amazing omissions from the plan. First, there is not a single reference to the economy… the second - and related - (omission is that) there is no recognition of the inter-connection between the pressures in the South and the problems of the North and Midlands… the imbalance (between regions) would undoubtedly be exacerbated were more houses and more jobs to be available in the South." (Robson, 2003, p.98)

38In response to this type of criticism, the government published, in February 2004, its vision for growth in the North, Making it Happen: the Northern Way (ODPM, 2004b). This document was designed to represent a counter-balance to the (southern) growth strategy presented in the original Sustainable Communities Plan.

39The Northern Way is an interesting document as there is little reference within it to an actual "vision" for growth for the North. Most of the document focuses on reviewing the progress of a range of government initiatives - such as its flagship neighbourhood renewal initiative, New Deal for Communities - and, contrary to the title of report, offers little in the way of new initiatives that will "make it happen" in the North.

40The embryonic vision for growth outlined in (a little) more detail by the Deputy Prime Minister when the report was launched, may be summarised as follows: economic development within the region (fig. 1) will be concentrated on two corridors, which follow existing transport links, from Liverpool (east) to Hull (west) and Newcastle (north) to Sheffield (south). The creation of these growth corridors, according to the Deputy Prime Minister, will "bring together a critical mass of economic activity across the northern Regions, which can help lever in new investment and boost the North as an economic force in Europe" (OPDM 2004c, p. 2).

41The Deputy Prime Minister has established a task force, including the three Government Offices and Regional Development Agencies of the North (North West Development Agency, One North East, Yorkshire Forward), to add some substance to the embryonic vision. Its report, published in September 2004, recommended that development be concentrated in the eight key "city regions" - Greater Manchester, Leeds, Merseyside (Liverpool), Central Lancashire, Sheffield, Hull, Tyne and Wear (Newcastle and Sunderland), and the Tees Valley (Middlesborough).

42The Northern Way has been criticised on a number of grounds, not least its failure to take account of the views of the residents of the North, plus their geographical vagueness. It is not clear, for example, if the vision also relates to the North Midlands9. However, there is also much that is laudable about it (Goodchild and Hickman, 2004). For example, the strategy has prompted a debate on the future on the North and encouraged inter-regional partnership working.

Figure 1 : The English Regions and "growth areas"

Figure 1 : The English Regions and "growth areas"


43The Labour government’s strategy to address the inter-regional housing market disparities, discussed above, may be characterised, very broadly, as a plan to accommodate further growth in the South allied to a process of managing decline in the North and Midlands, although the strategy has, latterly, incorporated an embryonic emphasis on growth in the North. In this section, we consider the rationale that underpins this strategy and its implications. It is inaccurate to suggest that the Labour government does not acknowledge the existence of inter-regional disparities, rather, these are subordinated to intra-regional questions. Thus, for example, in 1999, the government argued:

44"Although regional disparities undoubtedly exist, some of which have persisted for many years, the picture is much more complex than is often portrayed. In particular, there are wide variations in conditions within regions, and areas of deprivation are to be found in all parts of the country, as are examples of initiatives to tackle problems wherever they are found, the objective of government policy". (Cabinet Office, op. cit, p. 14).

45Likewise, the Sustainable Communities Plan (ODPM, op. cit., p. 11) argues:

46"The causes (of low demand) are complex. In the more extreme cases, in parts of the North and Midlands, homes and even whole streets are abandoned as people leave the area. These movements are not part of a general migration to the South, rather from conurbations to suburbs and rural areas that are considered more attractive".

47A defining feature of the Labour government’s interpretation of spatial inequalities in England has been a reluctance to contextualise the problems of disadvantaged regions and neighbourhoods in an analysis of the English space economy as a whole. Low demand in the North and Midlands and excess demand in the South are, thus, seen as "different challenges that require different solutions" (ibid. p. 2). The government declines to recognise that these problems may be the product of a single, macro-level problem - uneven regional economic development - caused by the differential spatial impacts of deindus-trialisation (from which the North and Midlands have suffered disproportionately) and tertiarisation (from which the South has benefited disproportionately).

48This interpretation originates from the set of values and assumptions that inform the broader political project of the government, the so-called "Third Way". This project affords primary importance to the promotion of national economic competitiveness through neo-liberal macro economic policy allied to the promotion of inclusion, the belief that the victims of economic change must be "brought along" (Reich, 1999). Labour governments of the post-war period promoted inclusion through Keynesian demand management and redistributive tax policies. The "New" Labour government consider these tools to be inappropriate, even damaging, in the context of a hyper-competitive global economy (Blair, 1998) and asserts that government no longer has the capacity or responsibility to "create" jobs (Peck and Theodore, 2000). The new strategy emphasises supply-side initiatives (e.g. training, counselling, work incentives) to ‘flexibilise’ the economically disenfranchised into paid employment (ibid.).

49This logic permeates the government’s approach to spatial problems and is consistent with the Third Way emphasis on tackling disparities, in this context within and between places of different types. However, it differs from that of previous Labour administrations in its rejection, in principle, of the latter’s Keynesian style central planning and redistribution of demand from the South to the North and Midlands, based on a "carrot" (capital grants, labour subsidies) and "stick" (investment controls) type regional policy (Martin and Tyler, 1993). This is replaced with a spatial policy based on regional (as opposed to national) supply-side intervention (Hall, 2003). A recent government commissioned study on the location of public sector employment, the "Lyons Review", recommended the re-location of 20 000 (junior) Civil Service posts from London to the regions (Lyons, 2004). However, this (modest) exercise is justified as much in terms of improving service delivery and reducing costs as redistributing economic activity.

50The principal vehicles for promoting the economic competitiveness of the English regions are the nine Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) established in 1999. The RDAs are each charged with formulating a Regional Economic Strategy (RES) to improve the economic performance of their region (DETR, op. cit). National policy guidance exerts a strong influence on the content of the RESs (Robson et al, 2000). However, ownership of regional economic problems, and the difficult political debates that accompany these, is devolved, in the last instance, to individual RDAs. The government’s pre-occupation with intra (rather than inter) regional issues means that relationships between RDAs and the differential impact of global economic change and macro economic policy on the regions are not considered. The key priority for the RDAs is the promotion of the so-called "knowledge driven"economy, to which supply-side factors such as educational attainment, skills levels, business services, "entrepreneurship" and the provision of infrastructure are vital (Tomaney and Ward, 2000). Demand-side considerations are absent from the RDA agenda.

51The Labour government, thus, affords no particular priority to disadvantaged regions (House of Commons, 2003), but emphasises the importance of applying different solutions to different challenges "wherever they are found". Its approach may be characterised as a "boot straps" response, akin to expecting the most disadvantaged regions, with limited means and assistance, to catch up with the most dynamic (ibid., 2003).

52In this context, the publication of the Northern Way is welcome as, for the first time in recent years, it has placed the North centre stage in policy debates about spatial policy in England. However, the "growth vision" presented in the Northern Way is ill conceived (Goodchild and Hickman, op. cit.). Most fundamentally, it is based on a policy idea worked out in the context of the very different circumstances that prevail in the South. In the context of the southern regions, the growth area has been conceived as a vehicle for managing growth. This growth is driven by London’s "world city" economy (ibid.) and the structural advantages held by the South in terms of factors underpinning contemporary economic competitive advantage; it is the largest and richest consumer market in England; it has the largest concentration of high value added sectors and centres of excellence in education and research and development, and, as a result, it is able to attract highly qualified young people from the rest of England (Gudgin, 1996). This structural advantage is perpetuated by patterns of public expenditure. For example, in 2001, the South accounted for 67% of government investment in research and development and 57.9% in higher education (Regional Trends, op. cit.). In the North, the imperative is to stimulate demand. The mere designation of a growth area is unlikely to achieve this in the context of a broader policy framework in which redistribution of demand from the South is ultra vires and aggregate demand in the North is chronically weak. Thus, the rhetoric of the Northern Way is characterised by an emphasis on growth, the reality is the management of decline.

53The government’s decision to facilitate further growth in the South is driven by its view of the financial, business service and other high-value added sectors as key economic "motors" for the UK as a whole. It corresponds with the "boosterist" view of stakeholders and lobby groups in the South that present the preservation of the capital’s ‘world city’ status as of over-riding national importance (GLA, op. cit.).

54However, the implementation of the Sustainable Communities Plan in the South presents a formidable political challenge, not least in reconciling new housing development with environmental protection. The government has previously committed itself to maximising the proportion of housing new build located on previously developed brownfield sites (DETR, op. cit.). In this context, the priority afforded to the Thames Gateway is not surprising. However, the costs and lead times of bringing forward development sites in the area are considerable (Reynolds and Rand, 2003). It is unlikely, therefore, that the government’s targets can be achieved without significant loss of greenfield land. Indeed, government commissioned (but little publicised) research suggests that adherence to the existing RPG house building targets plus the extra figures in the Sustainable Communities Plan will lead to a loss of 17,565 hectares of greenfield land in the South between 2001 and 2016 (ENTEC, 2004). Unsurprisingly, the Sustainable Communities Plan has attracted criticism from environmental pressure groups. For example, in launching its Communities not Concrete campaign, the Campaign to Protect Rural England argued:

55"CPRE believes that the Plan raises unanswered questions and could pose serious dangers to the countryside … In particular, proposals for massive growth areas in four key areas of the wider South East could mean more than half a million new homes and more roads and traffic on greenfield sites over the next 30 years. Growth on this scale could devastate the countryside in a region already under severe pressure… The plan misses a golden opportunity to deliver radical improvements in green construction… We’re also worried that the need to endure new housing is affordable and meet real needs could be lost in the pressure to build, build, build" (CPRE, op. cit., p. 1).


56It is self-evident that significant inter-regional economic and housing market inequalities prevail in England and that these are not negated by the government’s emphasis on intra-regional disparities (House of Commons, op. cit.). It has been argued here that the government’s strategy is flawed in that it has sought to address the spatial mismatch in housing and jobs though a strategy that focuses on the supply side of regional housing markets rather than the national demand side factors that give rise to these inequalities in the first instance. This is not to imply that a return to old-style Keynesian regional policy is appropriate. Indeed, the problems of such an approach - particularly the promotion of vulnerable "branch plant" oriented regional economies in the North in the post-war period - are well documented (e.g. Massey and Meegan, 1982). However, without reference to broader questions of demand, the Sustainable Communities Plan threatens to perpetuate and, indeed, exacerbate existing inequalities, not least through the demand-side impact of large scale house-building in the South. The Plan is apparently politically expedient for the government, as the devolution of responsibility for action to regional and sub-regional to regional and sub-regional bodies such as the RDAs and HMRF pathfinders implies a devolution of "ownership" of difficult political questions from Westminster and Whitehall. However, the government’s refusal to acknowledge the importance of the North South divide and to take measure to remedy it are likely to keep alive a vigorous debate on spatial disparities in England.

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1- In this paper, the term "the South" refers to London, the South East and East of England.
2 The Index of Multiple Depri-vation (IMD) uses a range of data to produce a series of deprivation indices at local authority and small area level. The seven "domains" of the IMD are: income; employ-ment; health and disability; education, skills and training; housing and services; living environment; and, crime.
3 Super Output Areas (SOAs) are a new official geographical unit, introduced for the 2001 Census, to improve compara-tive analysis of small area statistics. There are 32,482 lower level SOAs in England with a mean population of 1,500 people.
4 These are administrative units that correspond to the jurisdictions of the nine Government Offices for the Regions (GORs), established in 1994, and the nine Regional Development Agencies (RDAs), established in 1999. These are the primary classification for regional statistics in England. The boundaries of the regions are illustrated in figure 1.
5 Gross Value Added (GVA) equals Gross Domestic Product (the total value of goods and services produced in an area) minus taxes on product plus subsidies on products. GVA per capita has become the primary measure of regional wealth in the United Kingdom.
6 The boundaries used by the Land Registry are not co-terminus with those of the GORs and RDAs. They corres-pond to the boundaries of the (now defunct) "Standard Statis-tical Regions" (with the one exception that London is accorded regional status in its own right). These were the primary classification for regional statistics in England prior to 1994.
7 The government’s Housing Investment Programme (HIP) guidance defines "low demand" in the social rented sector as housing in blocks or manage-ment areas (of at least 50 dwellings) where one or more of the following is exhibited: a small or non-existent waiting list, tenancy offers are frequently refused; high rates of voids available for letting; high rates of tenancy turnover; or where marketing initiatives or exceptional allocation policies have been implemen-ted to counter unpopular housing. "Low demand" in the private sector is defined as neighbourhoods (of at least 50 dwellings) where private sector housing is dominant and one or more of the following symp-toms apply: property values low and falling in absolute terms; high void rate; high turnover of population; significant incidence of long-term voids or abandoned properties; visibly high incidence of properties for sale or let.
8 RPG9 is issued, jointly, by the Government Offices for the East of England, London and the South East.
9 A new strategy Delivering Growth Across the English Midlands - The Midlands Way, prepared by stakeholders in the East and West Midlands, is due for publication in early 2005.
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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1 : The English Regions and "growth areas"
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Référence papier

Stephen Hall et Paul Hickman, « "Bulldozing the North and Concreting Over the South"? The United Kingdom government’s Sustainable Communities Plan », Géocarrefour, vol. 79/2 | 2004, 143-152.

Référence électronique

Stephen Hall et Paul Hickman, « "Bulldozing the North and Concreting Over the South"? The United Kingdom government’s Sustainable Communities Plan », Géocarrefour [En ligne], vol. 79/2 | 2004, mis en ligne le 25 octobre 2007, consulté le 24 août 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/geocarrefour.659

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Stephen Hall

Centre for Urban and Regional Studies
University of Birmingham
Birmingham B15 2TT

Paul Hickman

Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research
Sheffield Hallam University
Sheffield S1 1WB

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