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Levelling Up: A view from the North

Timothy David Crawshaw is RTPI President for 2022. Tim will be speaking about these and other issues concerning the globally competitive area of England at Planner Live North in March. Find out more and book your ticket here.

This is an exciting time to be a Planner, and especially exciting for me, as RTPI’s new president for 2022. The recent Levelling Up White Paper released on 2nd February firmly puts tackling inequalities on the map. It’s an issue that formed a large proportion of my Inauguration Speech, alongside climate change and wellbeing.

My first reaction, coming from the North and being active in the Tees Valley, was one of excitement (really). This was closely followed by a sense of déjà vu and, on closer reading, a more tempered but still positive response.

Not for quite some time have the structural inequalities of life in the UK been outlined by Government who, in 2016, were not using the word ‘inequality’ to the same extent. This is important, as it shows clear ambition to provide opportunities for all to gain from the benefits of living in the 6th largest economy in the world. It is both laudable and compelling.

For those of us who have witnessed sometimes large investment locally only to see a small increment in living conditions for the many, the Levelling Up agenda has to demonstrate some new thinking and approaches.

Traditional economic levers often result in opportunities for the few, the agile, the able and the already wealthy. While the establishment of high-tech industries and innovation can provide part of the solution, there needs to be greater community wealth building. I was pleased to see reference to the consideration of a Community Wealth Fund. This, however, includes mechanisms to catalyse and harness local economic and job creation opportunities through cooperatives and social enterprise that value diversity and differing abilities.

In practical terms I was pleased to see references to truly affordable homes that are decent and efficient to run. The social rented sector has for too long been restricted to the most in need. Once this need has been met, the option to rent a secure and well-designed home with appropriate social infrastructure must be offered as a choice with dignity.

In the interim, as we ‘level up’, there has to be a realisation that not everyone can or wants to buy a home. The private rented sector, in the hollowed-out cores of provincial towns, cannot provide a decent place to live without significant investment.

The deep retrofit of our inner towns must be a priority if we are to tackle the inequalities in wellbeing and healthy life expectancy. This could provide a future for the high street in refurbished and health-giving communities in an inherently sustainable location.

Brownfield sites are a fantastic opportunity to create sustainable neighbourhoods, but without funding and certainty, as well as the crucial support for Local Plans that propose this, we will be wringing our hands again in 30 years’ time.

Of the pillars, namely physical, human, intangible, financial, social, and institutional capital, there is one glaring omission: natural capital. The power of nature to help in levelling up appears to be a crucial missing component.

Green jobs, nature-based solutions to climate change, health and wellbeing and the draw of wilderness are all key factors in equitable and sustainable growth. Levelling up must recognise the importance of the natural world and ecosystems services and the role of rural places and industry in supporting healthy towns and cities. For many places, the natural capital is one of the few remaining rungs on the ladder to recovery. We ignore this at our peril.

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