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Urgent need for governments to deal with urban decay and green up our cities

For various reasons, I am often in Melbourne and over the last few trips I have avoided public transport (trams) for obvious reasons. In my wanderings to various destinations in the inner city I have noticed that many shops that have been trading since I grew up in that city have now disappeared as a result of the coronavirus lockdowns and the shift away from store-based retail. They were struggling before the virus hit and have now gone. Whole retail shopping strips are in trouble (the famed Chapel Street, Bridge Road, and now Victoria Street, to name just a few retail areas in serious decline). When I arrive at the airport and move into the city I get this overwhelming feeling that all this infrastructure we have built is becoming redundant in a post-Corona world. It also reinforces my view that governments are going to have a major role in transforming these urban spaces to be better suited for the needs of whatever future there is to be. This view was strengthened when I read a recent report from a research group at Cambridge University in the UK – Townscapes: England’s health inequalities (released May 2020) – which found that health inequalities in England are rising as a result of the pattern of urban development over the period of austerity. In some of the “most deprived set of towns” residents are “much worse off than the least deprived on a number of key measures”. I suspect, similar outcomes would be found in Australia and elsewhere, should the research be done. With the virus fast-tracking major shifts in the way we relate to retailing and service delivery, now is the time to implement a new urban plan to green up our urban spaces, ensure there is viable employment bases in all cities, and maintain a close link between the social and economic settlements, a link that has been increasingly broken under neoliberalism.

There are many commentators who have suddenly found that unfettered globalisation (particularly of capital) is not the path to nirvana.

And there are all sorts of calls now for nations to return to more self-sufficient positions.

In the Australian case, this means that the manufacturing industry, that has been in terminal decline for years now, is revitalised.

What goes round comes round!

All these characters that touted the ‘free market’ are now favouring government intervention and financial support for failing capitalist firms and sectors.

We read, almost daily, how government should invest billions here or millions there to save some firm or sector.

The federal government has even created a – National COVID-19 Coordination Commission to “minimise and mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on jobs and businesses, and to facilitate the fastest possible recovery of lives and livelihoods.”

Did I say planning!

Yes, the wheel turns.

One of its plans it to restore profitability and jobs to manufacturing.

I will discuss that topic separately because, while many unions and progressives hanker for the days when factories purred and created relatively high-paying, secure jobs, the validity of the proposition is far from straightforward.

There were reasons manufacturing declined so thoroughly and they were not all related to poor policy or lack of government support.

It may be a good idea to introduce an industry policy designed to stimulate manufacturing, particularly in renewables and other future technologies, but dreaming of a return to large-scale, dirty-type manufacturing production is probably a step too far.

We should also realise that the sector is still one of the largest employers (about 7.1 per cent of total employment and rising).

But I will leave that for another day.

When I was in Manchester in February this year, I couldn’t believe some of the changes to the inner city. I had studied in the city during the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher was just warming up and saw the devastation of some of the urban areas that came with a hollowing out of state services and rising joblessness.

It looked worse to me in February, although it was a typically cold and wet Manchester day, which might have coloured my judgement. I also didn’t go out to my old haunts down Oxford Street and beyond.

But I think what is happening across most nations is part of a similar trend.

The report from the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at Cambridge University on the growing inequalities across the English urban landscape focuses our attention on the future.

I think it also explains, in part, why the Yes vote won in 2016, although I am sure the urbanite Left in London won’t agree.

The Bennett Institute have what they call their ‘Townscapes Project’, which seeks to explore the fortunes of towns, principally, but not exclusively in Britain, in a globalised world, exacerbated by the mindless austerity policies that have inflicted on regions and peoples.

We have known for a long time that the way in which the globalised economy has evolved has created differential spatial patterns of economic development, particularly in terms of concentrating high-paid, more secure work in the major city centres and starving the regional centres, which in part grew up as service centres for manufacturing, of jobs and opportunities for youth.

The ‘Townscapes Project’ is about exploring very “granular” data to get beyond the ‘north-south’ stereotypes and to expose the drivers of spatial inequality and the likely policy responses that will attenuate them.

The point that cannot be avoided is that societies will only tolerate a certain degree of inequality before they crumble.

The events on the streets in the US and beyond at the moment tend to reinforce that assessment.

I have written in the past about the declining regions of Australia as neoliberalism hollows out the economic settlement and concentrates jobs in the large urban centres.

Many regional cities then start losing their critical mass of services, the youth move to the major centres, and the, previously vibrant regional cities virtually become geriatric centres, dying with the remaining older residents.

For example, these blog posts cover related topics:

1. Brainbelts – only a part of a progressive future (July 25, 2016).

2. The urban impact of the failure of austerity (January 26, 2016).

In the mid-1980s, as progressives were floundering around to find some answer to the dominance of neoliberalism they came up with some ridiculous ideas.

Remember Tony Blair’s ‘Third Way’ nonsense.

There was social entrepreneurship.

And the was the so-called ‘New Regionalism’, which was largely driven by case studies documenting economic successes in California (Silicon Valley) and some European regions (such as Baden Württemberg and Emilia Romagna).

The interlinked ideas that define this approach to ‘space’ were consistent with the oft-heard claim from neo-liberals that the ‘national’ level of government gets in the way of development.

It also fed into the Left narratives that globalisation had usurped the power of the nation state and that international solutions to inequality were necessary.

Thomas Fazi and I considered all that in our book – Reclaiming the State: A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World (Pluto Books, September 2017).

New Regionalism claimed that ‘the region’ had become the “crucible” (to use the words of British regional scientist John Lovering) of economic development and should be the prime focus of economic policy.

In this way, the claim was that regions had usurped the nation state as the “sites of successful economic organisation” (Scott and Storper’s words) because supply chains (in the post Fordist era) had become more specialised and flexible given the need to deal with uncertain demand conditions.

New Regionalism advocates argued that regional spaces provided the best platform to achieve flexible economies of scope that allow nations to adjust to increasingly unstable markets.

These socio-spatial processes allegedly would require localised knowledge creation, the rise of inter-firm (rather than intra-firm) relationships, collaborative value-adding chains, the development of highly supportive localised institutions and training of highly skilled labour.

These dynamics then demanded that firms to locate in clusters, often grouped by new associational typologies (for example, the use of creative talent or untraded flows of tacit knowledge) rather than by a traditional economic sector such as steel.

The new post-Fordist production modes emphasise new knowledge-intensive activities encouraging local participative systems. By achieving critical mass of local collaborators, a region could be dynamic and globally competitive.

Most these claims were based on induction of regional ‘successes’ without regard for the specific cultural or institutional contexts, and lack any coherent unifying theoretical underpinning.

It is highly disputable whether the empirical examples that were advanced to justify the claims made by New Regionalist proponents actually represented valid evidence at all.

For example, John Lovering (1999: 382) examined the claimed made in the 1990s about Wales and concluded:

If one factor has to be singled out as the key influence on Wales’ recent economic development … it is not foreign investment, the new-found flexibility of the labour force, the development of clusters and networks of interdependencies or any of the other features so often seized upon as an indication that the Welsh economy has successfully ‘globalized’. Something else has been at work which is more important than any of these, and it is a something which is almost entirely ignored in New Regionalist thought … It is the national (British) state.

(Reference: Lovering, J. (1999) ‘Theory led by policy: the inadequacies of the New Regionalism’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 23, 379-395.)

That is, a supportive macroeconomic policy framework – read deficit spending from the currency-issuing government.

While many criticisms can be levelled at New Regionalism, its major weakness has always been that it perpetuated the notion that regions can entirely escape the vicissitudes of the national business cycle through reliance on a combination of foreign direct investment and export revenue.

It is a different spin (a variation) on the ‘business cycle is dead’ notion and amounts to a denial that macroeconomic policy – that is, at the national level – can be an effective response to global trends that penetrate via the supply chains defined by trade patterns to the local region.

New Regionalism thus supported neo-liberal claims that fiscal and monetary policy had become impotent and, in turn, it constructed mass unemployment as an individual phenomenon.

By ignoring the fact that mass unemployment demonstrates the unwillingness of the central government to spend sufficient amounts of currency given the non-government sector’s propensity to save, the neo-liberal position was left unchallenged and was actually reinforced.

A new style of – Say’s Law – emerged with claims that post-Fordist economies need to focus on ‘supply-side architectures’.

And now some decades into this abandonment of regional and urban planning, we are seeing the consequences in our towns and cities.

And urgent and planned government intervention is required.

The Bennett Report focuses on the health inequalities that have emerged that are directly traceable to the way in which urban settlements have responded to the trends noted and the rising austerity imposed on nations by neoliberal governments since the 1990s.

The main findings are:

1. “there are some marked, and worsening, health inequalities within the English townscape”.

2. Citizens in England’s “most deprived towns” endure “Shorter life expectancy, worse self-reported health, and the higher relative incidence of a number of illnesses mean that people who live in these different places have much lower wellbeing than their counterparts in more affluent places.”

3. Importantly:

… the ongoing coronavirus pandemic will … these inequities worse, not least because of its impact upon the employment prospects of those in the lower part of the income distribution.

4. Government must address issues such as “access to green spaces and associated issues like air quality, but also in terms of the retail options available to residents.”

5. The declining “high streets” (shopping precincts) require attention given they influence health outcomes.

6. As the inner cities decline, the quality of the shopping provided declines – we see a rise in $1 shops selling junk, increased tattoo and sex shops, and a proliferation of “convenience and fast food” shops that undermine health outcomes.

This is because rents fall as the quality of retailing falls and low-cost, low-productivity ventures enter.

7. Available services, particularly in health care, vary widely across different towns which impacts on the health outcomes of the residents. In the towns in decline, the professional services are among the first to go.

This is exacerbated by shifts in government policy towards supporting public health (shift to user pays etc), which makes it impossible for health services to survive in regions where jobs and incomes have dried up.

8. Towns that have abandoned green spaces – selling it off to developers so they can profit – face poor health outcomes.

The Report says that:

The COVID-19 crisis is having a major impact upon England’s towns. Access to green space, which is crucial to the mental and physical health of a population, especially during lockdown, is very unevenly distributed within them. There is an overriding need for policies to address the large and widening gaps in the health and economic fortunes of many towns, and these should be integral to the ‘levelling up’ and economic recovery agendas.

A major problem in Australia, for example, is the cuts in funding to local governments, who are then forced to party with developers to generate funds for service provision.

The distortion of the urban landscape that has followed is now delivering shocking health outcomes as exposed by the Bennett Report for Britain, which has experienced shocking cuts to local government grants from the national government.


The bottom line is this.

If regions are left to decay, the children perform worse in school, become obese because the food outlets available are all unhealthy and the green spaces disappear, and then form gangs because there are no jobs.

Society can only stand so much of that before it breaks.

It is breaking all over the world after several decades of this slow burn destruction of our job opportunities and urban infrastructure.

There is no shortage of government cash and with the COVID-19 pandemic making matters worse, now is the time for governments to be bold and start repurposing the declining retailing districts and improving services and generating work.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2020 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. What elections also show is there is no better way to turn rural areas into far right breeding grounds than to impose austerity on them or an EU convergence program. Quite a few maps are turning into the US version where you have the rural areas voting republican and the cities vote democrat. Farage knows it and Le Pen.

  2. My prediction is if the SNP get their way and trap Scotland in the EU madness.

    Within 20 years most of Scotland will be Blue again, because the rural areas will be hit hardest. The Tories know exactly how to take advantage of that.

  3. Dear Bill,

    Actually, the terminology used in the 2016 referendum vote was “Leave” (or “Remain”) rather than “Yes” (“Yes” was for Scottish Independence, although the “No” vote won), and if you think Manchester is looking the worse for wear, try poor old Naples!

    Best, Mr S.

  4. “All these characters that touted the ‘free market’ are now favouring government intervention and financial support for failing capitalist firms and sectors. We read, almost daily, how government should invest billions here or millions there to save some firm or sector.” When we begin to read about how government should invest billions here or millions there–hell, trillions everywhere–to rescue imperiled people and planet, instead of merely “some firm or sector,” THEN AND ONLY THEN we will begin to have a shot at building a better, more beautiful world. Neoliberalism is essentially the erasure of the ethical dimension from socioeconomic life, and as our neoliberal societies break down before our eyes, we see the wisdom and prescience of an old saying that human beings cannot live by bread alone. There can be no revolution or evolution that puts neoliberalism behind us, like noxious gas emitted from humanity’s backside, until ethical progress is again elevated to its proper place as THE overriding purpose of both individual and social life.

  5. Bill,

    Beware! Throw away phrases containing the words “green” and “renewables” have been dangerously corrupted.

    In the real world of thermodynamic whole-systems macro-analysis “renewables” are not in the slightest “green”, and can play no medium or long term beneficial part in “industry policy designed to stimulate manufacturing.”

    Why? Because wind and solar power are entirely dependant on big fossil for build out, maintenance, necessary grid upgrades, and back-up gas / coal plant to smooth intermittency, or vast tracts of land devoted to millions of capital intensive container sized batteries sitting idle for most of their lives.

    But this is an impossible vision in any case, because the entire “renewables” build out process requires orders of magnitude expansions in mining – colonial ‘extractivism’ – to obtain lithium & cobalt etc.

    Even if we burnt all our remaining fossil fuels and screwed over local populations to get all there is out the ground, and refined and began to build it all into infrastructure, there simply isn’t enough mineral deposits globally to electrify even a fraction of global energy consumption, both supply and demand sides, of which fossil fuels constitute 87% and rising (with only about 2% accounted for by Wind & Solar, 2% by Nuclear power, 3% hydroelectric, and 8% traditional bio-mass, geothermal is negligible and will always be so).

    In contrast, nuclear fission power is the only truly “green energy” that has any chance of replacing fossil fuels globally and allowing some very moderate increase in wind & solar, and perhaps kick starting the much vaunted hydrogen / synth fuel future.

    This is because nuclear fission power has orders of magnitude higher energy density than wind & solar & water power, has plant lifetimes several times longer, and needs far less land mining and fossil fuels for its build out & maintenance, before it can start to power its own build out. In other words wind and solar have far too low an energy density to compete in the race to replace high energy density fossil fuels.

    Conclusion: By far the best “industry policy designed to stimulate manufacturing” would be to get cracking and build the 1 nuclear fission power plant needed every day until 2050, for human civilization to have any chance whatsoever of replacing fossil fuels by then.

    Also, we can easily generate relatively cheap electricity for dozens of decades by ‘burning’ all the existing nuclear waste & warheads in gen4 reactors. Such reactors have already been built that render ‘waste’ safe as background in 300 years, instead of in mountains caves for 300,000 years. And seawater has enough uranium (etc.) dissolved in equilibrium with seabed rocks to last until the sun goes supernova.

    We must not allow our analysis to contain unquestioned misleading and disingenuous press releases celebrating micro calculations of a wind or solar farm’s relative electricity output and spurious ‘zero emissions’. Otherwise a stealthy “return to large-scale, dirty-type manufacturing production” will be accidentally enabled, which definitely would be “a step too far” !

    [Bill notes: edited out links I did not wish to promote]

  6. I was at your talk in February in Manchester, and even as a born and bred Mancunian the rain was something else that day, was tempted to jump on the train south with you ! Having said that there has been a huge gentrification of the city centre in the last 20 years, especially so in the last 5 years. There’s really only one large brownfield site left in the inner core left undeveloped, and that has development plans already on the table. There are now a multitude of new builds with lots more on the way (although post-Covid who knows) Most of the development is PRS / BTR towers and apartments, a rather glossy playground for those able to afford it, but a world apart from the 70’s/80’s and 90’s.

    The towns and boroughs that ring the centre of Manchester are a microcosm of the problems you cite however – islands of wealth in certain towns, but a lot of unemployment, poverty and failing high streets with the aforementioned mix of tattoo parlours, betting shops, charity shops and takeaways. They are serious breeding grounds of resentment and racial tension in certain places and its been building for a long time.

    Its part of the reason a JG would work so well i think, it will help ameliorate the flight to urban centres for the young, and prevent a collapse of incomes that impoverish those who can’t or don’t want to leave their homes, friends & family.

  7. In my low-income neighborhood the local shopping precinct consists mainly of fast food, pawnshops, tattoo parlours, vaping shops and outlets that do WINZ quotes for second hand furniture and rent you TVs and whiteware by the month. In the local mall it seems half the shops are empty with fake images fronting them so as to delude you into thinking the mall is thriving. I suspect what keeps the mall going is the library and medical centre. Something needs to be done. It is depressing – though I suppose some will decry my distaste as snobbish middle class sensibility. Since coronavirus our local vege shop has gone. Our local strip mall that used to have a pharmacy and surgery has more empty shops. To my mind there is an urgent need to revitalise urban centres with imaginative, perhaps community uses. I can’t help thinking the JG could come in here. Low income areas deserve better than just a sin city that the market delivers.

  8. Yes, Simon, in the UK the big developers are entirely in control of planning. The problem is development land taxes (Section 106 Agreements and the Community Infrastructure Levy). They run rings round the local authorities with their expensive lawyers and accountants, whilst smaller operators just get out the cheque book (see Richard Desmond and his bribe to Housing Minister). They should both be abolished and replaced with land value tax. It’s been great to see through the MMT lens that we don’t have to worry about replacing bad taxes but some taxes are very very good.

  9. Sadly, almost all the important statements are wrong in Natasha’s comment of the 10th of June.

    The carbon payback period for wind farms is generally less than a year.
    This takes into account the energy and resources used for materials, manufacture and the construction of supporting infrastructure.
    This page gives multiple references… (I’ve mangled this and other links in an attempt to satisfy Akismet’s over-eager spam-blocker, but I’m sure you can work out what was meant…)
    https :// www .newscientist .com/ lastword/mg24332461-400-what-is-the-carbon-payback-period-for-a-wind-turbine/

    For solar, the energy payback time depends on the type of system and its location, but is generally between about half a year and two years, sometimes a little more.
    https :// www .ise .fraunhofer .de /content/dam/ise/de/documents/publications/studies/Photovoltaics-Report.pdf
    https :// cleantechnica .com /2018/03/25/solar-power-energy-payback-time-now-super-short/
    https :// /2018/02/03/solar-power-can-pay-easily/

    For storage,there are several good cheap practical alternatives to batteries.

    Pumped hydroelectric has been used for many decades now, and most countries have plenty of good sites that could be used, far more than was commonly thought a few years ago:
    https :// cleantechnica .com /2019/04/01/pumped-hydro-energy-storage-poised-for-global-domination/

    Thermal storage (hot and cold) is another option. Construction has started in England on a 50MW 250MWh energy store based on insulated tanks storing cold (liquid air) and heat, and the company has plans for more:
    https :// www .theguardian .com /environment/2020/jun/18/worlds-biggest-liquid-air-battery-starts-construction-in-uk

    There’s also Compressed Air Energy Storage (CAES): see the Wikipedia article.

    Some renewable energy systems have built-in storage. For example, baseload solar power plants exist already: concentrated sunlight heats molten salt which is stored before use as a heat source for a steam turbine.

    As for batteries, there are plenty of options other than lithium. For grid-scale stationary storage the important things are long working life and low price at large scale, so there are companies using abundant elements such as vanadium, calcium, sodium, sulphur, zinc, aluminium… and it is reasonable to use systems that work at high temperature or have lower energy-density than the batteries used in vehicles or portable electronics. Examples include liquid metal systems (see the Ambri company) and flow batteries (the StorEn company using vanadium, Lockheed Martin’s “GridStar Flow”…) and more.

    We can also adjust use of energy/electricity to match supply. For example, a washing machine or an electric car charger could be set to run when electricity is abundant. An aluminium smelting plant can be turned on and off (or up and down). A building cooling system can make ice when electricity is cheap, then use that stored cold when needed.

    For years now we’ve had reasonably detailed plans for how each country get 100% of its energy from wind, water and solar, using just a small fraction of land area. That’s replacing not just present electricity use, but all energy use, including heating, transport etc. and the energy cost is cheaper than the fossil alternative (even before counting health or climate impacts).
    https :// thesolutionsproject .org /why-clean-energy/
    or here’s a plan from 2011 for how Australia could have got to 100% by 2020:
    https :// skepticalscience .com /Zero-Carbon-Australia-2020.html

    Costs of wind, solar and storage keep falling faster than predicted, and almost everywhere in the world they’re a cheaper option than building any other kind of power plant; in some places cheaper than the costs of running existing coal and gas power plants.

    The world has plenty of lithium for road vehicles at least (and it’s easy and cost-effective to recycle). The latest lithium-ion batteries don’t use cobalt.

    As for nuclear fission, the power stations are far more expensive, they take far too long to build, and let’s not ignore the pollution, destruction and energy-consumption involved in mining for their fuel. (This would be a lot less with breeder reactors, but those have not yet been built at commercial/industrial scale.)

    Also, although they can provide steady power output they do not provide dispatchable power: they cannot be turned up and down quickly, so we would still need storage and/or demand-management.

    One point where I do agree with Natasha is that to deal with existing radioactive waste, the world should build a few “fourth generation” power stations using fast-neutron breeder reactors with integrated fuel reprocessing.

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