In Conversation with: Prof. John Tomaney, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning, University College London

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“I had this argument about Regional Development Agencies with government ministers in 2010 on the grounds that they’d been around for 10 years and hadn’t closed the gap between the North and South. I’m telling them it’s taken 100 years for this gap to widen like this, why do you think it’s going to take 10 years to close it? If you’d said that after 25 or 30 years but these are generational tasks here”

Before leaving the North of England and returning to Cambridge I caught up with Professor John Tomaney in Newcastle. John is a Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the Bartlett, UCL and has recently joined the UK2070 commission into regional inequalities in the UK. I began the discussion by asking him what he thinks this commission could acheieve.

JT: Well, that’s a good question - all of these sorts of commissions are a cast of thousands with all different views and it’s going to be quite a challenge. The focus is on regional inequalities and the first question is what is the nature of those inequalities? The second question is should we be worried about those inequalities? Because some people say we shouldn’t for a variety of different reasons. And finally, what should we do about them? I mean all of those questions are contentious - and I have my own views on it - but whether they get reflected in what the commission finally produces I am yet to know, but raising the questions is definitely necessary.

TA: Do you think an English Plan, or something more spatial than the NPPF would help with understanding where the inequalities and natural assets are and how we can build on from this?

JT: I mean the NPPF isn’t a plan at all and I don’t think it’s purposeful that we don’t have an English Plan when the other UK members do, it’s possibly more of a product of neglect. Devolution has allowed for a national planning framework for Scotland and Wales etc. One of the simple difficulties with England is that there isn’t a framework at the level of England to accommodate the plan - that’s one issue. Another is that England is much larger than Scotland or Wales and while they contain diverse conditions, they also provide scale in which planning can occur. One of the things we want to do [UK2070 Commission] is map the inequalities and one of the members is Alasdair Rae from Sheffield who is great at mapping such data.

TA: In your work on the effect HS2 may have you mention that you believe that such large-scale projects aren’t currently what is needed? Do you think investment is needed on some of the existing rail routes first?

JT: Well I imagine you’ve followed all the stuff about ‘Crossrail for the North’…

TA: Yes, and I’m not sure it’s the most helpful way of putting it across…

JT: No, exactly, I agree. They talk about these massive investments, but you don’t need massive investments. You just need better stations, better rolling stock, better signalling. You don’t need new railway lines as most of this can be solved with existing infrastructure. You just want to turn up and get on the train and we don’t need HS2 style stuff. To say the wheels are coming off HS2 at the moment is an understatement.

TA: What role do you think Europeanisation has played in this focus on big projects? With the retreat of the nation state and local councils being cash strapped it feels as though these big projects are very much a Europe driven idea

JT: Well with European Regional Development Funds, Britain was gradually getting less because it was all going to central Eastern Europe - the gap between Eastern Romania and London - it’s like the third world. And there’s always politics around who gets the money as well. This region (North East) over a course of time received a lot of money from the EU but people didn’t notice it or understand it. It wasn’t necessarily going to the right places or being particularly well spent. My whole take on what’s needed in these places, the Brexit voting places, is that they don’t need big investments in big infrastructures - they probably need small investment and finding out what the local authorities think they need support with. There’s also the regional tier and you need to think about that, for example, the relationship of Huddersfield to Leeds and Manchester, there’s lot of solutions at that scale. My view is that there’s a massive rethinking which needs to be done on what does and doesn’t work and where it is important to intervene. The whole reason why we have HS2 is because there is a very powerful lobby in its favour made up of mainly engineering companies who want the business. It’s increasingly evident that decision making processes which led us to something like HS2 were deeply, deeply flawed - a chap on the radio from HS2 said that “they just had interns drawing lines on a map and guessing how much the land will cost to buy”. That whole approach has got to go in my opinon.

TA: Do you think devolution will help with this? I personally think it’s only going to shift problems and blame to a dfiferent level when maybe some of these decisions should actually be made by central government

JT: My view of it would be that it is a necessary but not sufficient condition. We need more decisions made at the local scale. If you go into Newcastle City Council and talk about planning, they would tell you that most of the stipulations in the NPPF framework don’t even apply to Newcastle. They certainly don’t apply to South Shields. I was talking to my students about this earlier last week when we took them to Middlesbrough. Our students come from all over the world, by and large are from privileged backgrounds and they learn a lot about global cities and spend a lot of time learning about London, then you take them to Middlesbrough, and they discover that everything they have been taught doesn’t work here. Viability, for instance - private developers looking for a return on investment are not interested in Middlesbrough. Unless the state massively subsidises them in all kinds of ways - transparent and non-transparent. If Middlesbrough or the Tees Valley ran its own planning policy, then it would look a lot different from what is imposed upon them essentially by civil servants and Ministers in London. These places like Middlesbrough or Huddersfield or Consett need more money, more investment, and devolution doesn’t provide you with that.

TA: Do you think short-termism is a big part of some of the so-called ‘solutions’ to these areas to date, and the focus on insant returns?

JT: Well I had this argument about Regional Development Agencies with government ministers in 2010 on the ground that they’d been around for 10 years and hadn’t closed the gap between the North and the South. I’m telling them it’s taken 100 years for this gap to widen like this, why do you think it’s going to take 10 years to close it? If you’d said that after 25 or 30 years but these are generational tasks here. Canberra is a generational task.

TA: From my own understanding, HS2 hasn’t really been thought out in terms of how it’s going to connect into the city at the personal scale, and in the same way the Northern Powerhouse still floats around in this nebulous state without very much coming out of it

JT: I personally think with the Northern Powerhouse, it would be best for everybody if they just abandon it. Obviously there’s official business of conferences and everything. There’s a kind of lobbying industry around it. But if you stop people on the street outside here and ask them about the Northern Powerhouse you wouldn’t get much of a response. In that scenario you’re better off starting afresh, I think.

TA: What do you think would replace it? I personally think there needs to be a bigger move or restructuring

JT: Well, we’ve lived for maybe 25-30 years with this view that there’s not a lot you can do for these declining northern cities - you could do a bit maybe in Manchester or Leeds but that’s about it. The rest are just going to decline, and in any case, to do anything about that is to undermine the success of places like London. That idea I think has been a very powerful one and it’s strongly held in the civil service for instance. In lots of ways they’re into cost-benefit ratios but there are blind spots, and this is one of them. You assume they’ve though a lot more about this stuff than they actually have. It’s when you sometimes challenge them on some of these ideas that you realise that no one has actually every challenged them on this stuff. Brexit was a kind of kick back against that I would argue. It could end up being entirely self-defeating for some of these places.

TA: I mean Newcastle voted remain, but most areas around it voted to leave…

JT: Yes and I remember having a conversation with a taxi driver in Newcastle about a month before the referendum and I’d stopped asking people what they were voting for and I started to ask them what they thought was going to happen. He said we were going to Leave because everybody he knows was voting Leave… When i was in London, nobody believed it would happen. My view was that it was going to be close, much closer than people thought. I think that it was very much a reaction against London. Most of the evidence shows that many of the places that voted Leave are going to be the places most hit by leaving but I said to that taxi driver “well aren’t you worried about what might happen if we leave” and he said, “I’m a taxi driver in Newcastle, how much worse can it get”. It’s a fair point and he said most people he knows live pretty crap lives and it’s not going to make much difference.

Tom Ardron