The spatial dimension of Brexit

The old divisions based on income and class no longer tell us a huge amount about people’s attitudes and optimism, writes AoU Chair, David Rudlin.

Back in 2016 the Academy of Urbanism’s London conference took place in London a week before the EU referendum. The talk was of little else given the narrowing polls and the dawning realisation that the leave campaign might win. The delegates were mystified, there wasn’t one amongst us who intended to vote leave (at least none who would admit to it). We were I’m afraid typical of the metropolitan elite, but as urbanists we also needed to share part of the blame.

My practice Urbed was formed in 1976 in a run down and largely vacant part of London. The founding director Nicholas Falk had recently penned a Fabian Pamphlet with Haris Martinos called Inner City: local government and economic renewal.

This was picked up by Peter Shore, the then Labour minister for the environment and fed into the Inner Cities White Paper of 1977. It was the first time that it had been accepted that there was a spatial dimension to economic policy. We had known of course that there would always be people left behind by economic progress, but it wasn’t until the ‘discovery’ of inner cities that policy makers realised that the places where poverty was concentrated were a cause rather than just a symptom of this social inequality.

That rundown district where Urbed started was Covent Garden and of course it didn’t stay run down for long. However the inner cities became a preoccupation of all levels of government, particularly after the riots of the early 1980s. Billions of pounds have since been spent on their regeneration from the Urban Programme, though City Challenge, New Deal for Communities, Urban Development Corporations, Urban Task Forces and the ill-fated Housing Market Renewal Initiative. Given that these regeneration budgets were the earliest victims of austerity we perhaps shouldn’t be surprised to find that places and people have once more been left behind. However what has changed is who has been left behind and where they are to be found.

In October last year the campaigning group Hope not Hate published the latest instalment of its ongoing research into attitudes in the UK. They have undertaken four studies since 2011 surveying some 40,000 people. Their report spatially maps people’s optimism about their economic future, showing that it correlates strongly with the referendum result. The social map of the country has changed since the inner city regeneration policies of the 80s and 90s.

The old divisions based on income and class no longer tell us a huge amount about people’s attitudes and optimism. People living in the old inner cities within the large cities are more optimistic than those in towns, both the industrial towns of the north and the isolated and coastal communities of the south. The survey classifies people into six ‘tribes’ based on their answers to questions about immigration and contrary to what you might expect it actually shows an increase in the two most liberal groups (from 24% to 39%) and a decrease in the group expressing active enmity (from 13% to 5%). However it is striking that just 3% of this least liberal group live in the core cities. The inner cities may not have been regenerated but their multi-cultural communities are more confident about their future likely to be at the liberal end of the spectrum.

Myself and my fellow urbanists often talk about the renaissance of our towns and cities. It is indeed a remarkable story of places like Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow, once on the brink of collapse, that have come back to life, seeing their economies and populations growing and their sense of confidence returning. But we are wrong to talk about towns and cities, because the former have often been bypassed by this urban renaissance. The manufacturing economy is being replaced by a knowledge economy and this has overwhelmingly favoured the larger cities. Just as the economic changes of the 1970s and 80s destroyed the inner cities, so today’s changing economy has undermined the economies of industrial towns, yet there is no urban policy or budget to deal with this.

Back in the 1980s when the residents of Brixton, Toxteth and Moss Side felt left behind the result was some of the worst riots that we have ever seen in the UK. The response by today’s deprived communities has been much more peaceable, they have just given the establishment a kicking by not voting the way that they expected.

This post originally appeared in Building Design

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