We’re too obsessed with cities. Or at least the prime minister thinks so. As the Conservative Party began its conference in Manchester staring down the wrong end of a polling deficit, Rishi Sunak claimed: “Politicians have for too long taken towns for granted and focused on cities.”
In fact, a quiet revolution is happening in the UK’s cities. One that might hold answers for our struggles with loneliness and the environment.
Plans are afoot in Glasgow to turn the city’s main shopping streets into something new, repurposing empty shops and creating “a more European cafe culture”.
In East Kilbride, the council wants to reduce retail space by 40%, freshening up the town centre with housing and public spaces.
The first buses on Manchester’s long-awaited Bee Network of integrated public transport have just launched, with the promise that residents will have quicker, greener ways to travel. Leeds city centre is in the midst of a transformation, with fewer places for cars and more for pedestrians.
With the government’s £100 million English Cities Fund going to places like Liverpool, Salford and Plymouth, cities seem to be a priority in Westminster too. But there’s another narrative forming. The cities fund is dwarfed by £1 billion in levelling up funding just spread out across towns from Bexhill-on-Sea to Wrexham.
Announcing this, Sunak said: “We need to change the way this country does politics. We need to change our economic geography away from cities.”
If you want to understand a possible political motivation for doing this, look at a map showing 2019’s election results. The red bits are the cities.
Last week, we looked at Sunak’s big U-turn on net zero, which experts painted as a “cynical” attempt to avoid a drubbing at the next general election. This week we examine another front the Conservatives have decided to open in hope of staying in office: the places we live. Can cities survive the storm?
“Why do we care to come together, and be together, in a public space?” asks Philipp Rode, executive director of LSE Cities at the London School of Economics.
“There’s an urgent societal need for ensuring that we do come together better in space.”
The words ‘city centre’ probably conjure an image of a big shopping centre. There’s a Nando’s, a H&M and a slightly empty WH Smith.
They’re like this for a reason, by the way: shops get good access to a critical mass of customers, and businesses get access to a wide pool of workers.
Cities have transport, amenities, places to stay and big venues. All things, in other words, that might make you want to host your party conference in a big city like Manchester.
Increasingly, though, city centres have been characterised by emptiness: vacant shops, with little to replace them. Debenhams and BHS have been followed into oblivion by Wilko.
Meanwhile, Brits are Europe’s biggest lovers of online shopping, with 26% of retail taking place online. This passion has hastened the decline of our towns and cities. As things stand, the gap is hardly being filled with a vibrant cultural offering.
In the last 12 months, 125 live music venues have closed, while two pubs are shutting their doors every day. (If you’re interested in keeping the UK’s much-loved small venues alive, check out our Venue Watch campaign.)
This lack of vibrancy is obvious when walking down the street. Retailers have “completely bought into bog standard shops, and you can’t even differentiate any more whether you’re in a high street in the north, in the west, in the east,” says Rode.
Throw in changed habits post-Covid – we all enjoy eating pasta outdoors now – and there’s a recipe for a more permanent shift in how our cities look.
Like Glasgow, councillors and mayors and planners elsewhere are trying to make life more European. Out with the shops, in with the flats and cafes.
Look at Southampton, York and Bristol, and you’ll see similar plans to make urban centres fit for purpose.
It’s a widespread trend. City centres “still play a very central role, but I think that role is moving slightly away from consumption towards leisure time, time to socialise, to meet people”, says Valentine Quinio, senior analyst at the Centre for Cities think tank.
However, it’s not going smoothly everywhere. York has seen recent political opposition to a games bar – not gambling, just a place to play pool, bowling, and ping pong – over fears of antisocial behaviour.
Historic England has opposed plans for high-rise buildings in the centre of Derby, providing 875 new homes, on the grounds they would be “harmful” to the city. Or look to Surrey’s wannabe-Singapore, Woking, where three residential skyscrapers in the heart of the town, funded with £750m of borrowing, drove the council to bankruptcy.
Attempts to reinvent cities could also face political headwinds. Placing a pet obsession of conspiracy theorists at the heart of government policy, the Department for Transport accompanied Sunak’s city-bashing by announcing it will “stop councils implementing so called ‘15-minute cities’, by consulting on ways to prevent schemes which aggressively restrict where people can drive”.
This rhetoric might bear little relation to reality, but it won’t be music to the ears of those looking to re-jig city centres.
In practical terms, there’s also no guarantee investment pans out. It’s not enough to just build shiny things and hope a place will thrive, says Quinio.
“We need to focus on attracting jobs in city centres, and then focus on attracting more residents. And it has to be that way round, rather than the other way round.”
This means that, while adding lots of flats might bring consumers closer to businesses, there needs to be demand for people to live there, without crowding those businesses out. It’s about striking a balance. In some cases, like Plymouth, those in charge have identified a lack of housing as the thing holding them back from being the next metropolis.
Think of cities as a mix of different uses: residential, leisure, retail and so on. It’s easy to upset that mix.
“There are voices that are nervous about actively inviting too much housing because that brings with it a whole different dynamic,” says Rode. Tough economic times also bring their own challenges, with funds tighter and risks harder to justify.
“There’s a great deal of uncertainty, which is not going to go away. So it’s not a moment to make big bets about the next WeWork or the next mega store or flagship store,” says Rode.
Alongside the opportunities, there are a set of problems waiting to be solved. We are politically polarised, lonely and behind progress on our climate goals.
Greener, better transport can breathe life into cities, while residents living closer to amenities reduces journeys and emissions.
“The success of the high street will depend on how easy it is to access,” says Quinio.
Rather than sitting at home, getting meals and clothes and groceries delivered, why not go outside and see what it has to offer? Realised properly, these new ideas for cities can bring people together, allowing them to live connected rather than atomised lives.
“I would argue to really think hard about: what is the library 2.0? What is the play area for intergenerational play?” asks Rode.
“What is the future of the street, where it’s not just used for moving through but for actually being there and enjoying the outdoors?”
This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!