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In the early hours of the morning after her third general election victory, in 1987, Margaret Thatcher leaned out of an upstairs window in Conservative Central Office in Smith Square to hail the media.

“But tomorrow morning,” she said. “We must do something about those inner cities, because we want them too next time.” She was responding to one of the psephological peculiarities of the night before, which revealed the nation had stuck firmly with her rule, except for those inner urban areas which had borne the brunt of deindustrialisation.

It is nearly three decades since then, and as a nation we have poured money into ‘those inner cities’ until – hey presto! – they didn’t exist anymore. They exist geographically, of course, but the people who lived there have gone. Most of the inner cities that were involved in the urban riots of 1981 which kickstarted the development corporations and much more besides have been gentrified and beautified and their previous inhabitants have been priced out to the outer suburbs. 

It is these outlying estates which featured in the 2011 riots, and the outer suburbs too, which are the place where poverty still resides – Easterhouse in Glasgow, the Valleys north of Cardiff, the outer borough of Manchester or Birmingham, and which voted for Brexit (the inner city areas voted Remain). It isn’t as if all that money which has been shovelled at urban poverty in those three decades has done much to extinguish the poverty, though it has done quite a lot for property values.  Strange how these things get so confused in public policy.

Perhaps the most obvious mismatch was the Isle of Dogs in east London, which went from some of the most run-down impoverished housing in the whole country in the space of a few years, to the home of Canary Wharf, and the most expensive property in the world – but without managing to benefit the previous inhabitants. It was more like the discovery of America or Australia – great wealth, but where were the indigenous people?

Huge investment in buildings and transport infrastructure has remained the cornerstone of UK public policy when it comes to revitalising run-down neighbourhoods. The idea is that the problem is physical connectivity. It is the apotheosis of the words of one of Margaret Thatcher’s ministers, Norman Tebbit, whose phrase about his dad “getting on his bike to look for work” went into the political lexicon.

And if bikes weren’t entirely practical, they built motorways and metros – but there was a question mark which hug over the whole idea. If people could get out more easily from their estates, and find work elsewhere, why would any indigenous business survive? Would the infrastructure just enable the richer areas and the bigger companies to vacuum up the rest even more effectively?

Nobody has ever really quite answered these questions. Though places like Barking and Dagenham and the west end of Newcastle now have excellent transport links, but remain impoverished and without the necessary confidence to take part in the mainstream economy.

Which brings us to Cardiff, which has now signed the outline City Deal which will bring together the ten local authorities in the city region, dedicated to building a metro line which links the former coal mining Valleys with Cardiff to the south. There certainly is a disconnect between Cardiff and the Valleys. It takes well over an hour to commute in from there and the Valleys are strong communities, with serious problems of depression among the working age population, and which have stubbornly failed to recover from the end of mining.

The City Deal is hugely important for the region. It has bound the ten local authorities together effectively for the first time, which is bound to be a pre-requisite to real progress.  But the question marks hang over the metro scheme, and the region have commissioned an economic study to advise them how best to use it, under Greg Clark (the cities consultant, not the cabinet minister).

Will the EU money be forthcoming (it seems likely that it will)? Will it suck the life out of the Valleys or pump prime them? And what will make the difference? And perhaps most urgently, will it be enough?

Cardiff looks set to be a test case for transport infrastructure. If it works for the Valleys, and Greg Clark’s commission succeeds in coming up with an accompanying economic programme to work in parallel, then transport will continue to be a major part of the regeneration policy mix  If not, it seems likely to mark its last hurrah.

Find out more about the Inclusive Growth Commission.


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