I suppose it should be no surprise that The Centre for Cities has brought out some new research predicting that cities will be the life blood that surges through the veins of our new economy - whatever or whenever that emerges. I agree with their analysis. The Centre for Cities is an excellent organisation and should be applauded for trying to quantify the success or otherwise of different UK cities.
You can find their report at; Cities Outlook 2012 I tend to agree with the main aim of the results - that education is an important key to success. But I agree that we musts not fall into the trap of calling up-skilling a silver bullet. In my view there are no silver bullets in regeneration, where everything is connected to everything else. It's only through thoughtful and consistent resolution of complex problems that the fortunes of these places will improve. Bilbao is an excellent lesson in this. They did not do one thing - they did many things, all linked to growth and improvement of the lives of the people.
However, in looking at the the Centre for Cities top four and bottom four cities - those tipped to succeed and those tipped to decline - I couldn't help thinking about other factors that will set the future for these places.
It is clear that London and Edinburgh have more chance than Aberdeen and Milton Keynes - or is it? (I'd say that's something to do with scale, access, mix of industries and location.) Similarly, if you look at the challenged cities you will see other disparities.
I am willing to bet that any of these challenged cities could prosper over the next ten years. So what will do it? I agree that education and retraining is vital, but access, facilities and development are also important. The study that I made of Bilbao in 2008 revealed that all these had been improved at the same time because of a dynamic set of circumstances that didn't all relate to finance.
It was political change, optimism and autonomy that did the trick for Bilbao I think. It's interesting to note that all the cities in the challenged list play second fiddle to somewhere nearby. This may indeed be a problem for Milton Keynes as well, which is too close for comfort to London and Northampton. The one is just really big and successful, the other has had tons of regeneration money pumped into it over the years and must be a competitor for land development.
The clincher for Bilbao was the designation of the Basque Region in 1978 as an autonomous region. Franco had died and there followed a political optimism which I have observed always occurs after a periods of political repression. In addition the city became a city region, which meant that it had control over its hinterland. (Something which the French have initiated as well in the development of the aglomerations.)
If you want to read more about Bilbao see Bilbao- The Redefinition of Tourism in my original essay of 2008. There is also a set of images of Bilbao in the photo library - top right of this blogpage.
So what one thing could the five challenged cities do to change their fortunes?
Doncaster is fantastically well connected by road and rail. It should take over all the land between the M62, M18 and the A1M and declare a sort of green UDI - linking its historic city, its manufacturing land with its very beautiful rural hinterland. Instead of high density, rather dour urban development, it should become a garden city. That would distinguish it suitably from its neighbours Sheffield and Leeds/Bradford.
Hull has always looked to the sea and should do so again. Imports from dynamic Denmark, Netherlands and Flanders should be cultural, social and economic.
Sunderland is a tricky one and should probably look at growth without increase. Demolish the redundant industrial zones and progressively clear underused suburban housing estates. It too, like Hull should look towards the use if its port - that fantastic inland sheltered harbour must have some new use whether it be sportive, touristic or industrial. It's success could also benefit from liaison with Newcastle (just as Gateshead has done.) I can see Sunderland becoming Newcastle on Sea - but then South Shields may have something to say about that!
The success of the North Eastern RDA, compared to some, may have some lessons here. The RDA was a well funded administration that covered all these close knit cities and towns. Their future success will comein forming a constellation of complimentary not competing places.
Swansea and Newport
I've linked Swansea and Newport together because they have both suffered from playing second and third fiddle to Cardiff. Sadly the Welsh autonomy had little effect upon the fortunes of these towns. I can't say whether that was because of their own ineffectiveness, or because they were not given the level of autonomy that Scotland possesses. South Wales, with it's sheltered Southern coastline and low housing costs should be a sinch for attracting the grey pound. But the towns have always been fiercely independent, a bit like Bilbao. Somehow that pride of place has not transformed into a welcoming atmosphere. Instead South Wales, despite its good road and rail connections to the rest of the UK seems isolated. So perhaps for South Wales there needs to be a cultural flowering. There needs to be a realisation of Wales' place in the UK and the world. I guess this will come from confidence in its own identity. These towns need to be truely welcoming to outsiders (in the way that Bilbao has been) whether they be tourists, new settlers, or businesses. For, as my article about Bilbao shows, today's tourists are tomorrows investors.