Setting the politics to one side – all budgets being designed to outfox the opposition – this week’s final fiscal jig before Brexit might reasonably be described as a Budget for Cities.
At a cursory glance at least 60 per cent of the initiatives outlined had something to do with infrastructure, housing, the High Street or some other form of urban investment. There were rates reliefs, competitive bidding programmes, subsidies, regulatory reforms and much more besides.
If cities are your thing – as they are mine – then it was dizzying stuff.
Among the more eye-catching reforms – and one for which we’ve already seen substantial demand in each of our three UK studios – was the proposal to further relax permitted development rights so that extensions above commercial premises and homes could be delivered more readily. It was also suggested that commercial buildings could more easily be demolished and replaced with homes.
This was just one of a number of salvos designed to help urban cores thrive by boosting population levels and local spending power – with the obvious benefit of helping what remains of suburban high streets and, in the smaller, struggling towns and cities, their retail cores.
There was a healthy dose of realism in proposals to allow empty retail units to be converted to housing and encouragement for empty space above shops to be converted, likewise. And it was backed up with hard cash, too, in the shape of £675m for the Future High Streets Fund to invest in town centre infrastructure, including residential.
Independent retailers got some help, too, in the form of rates relief. The march of the independents goes fiscal? It would seem so.
Larger retailers were boosted by the proposed ‘digital services tax’ on Amazon, eBay et al who, doubtless, will pass this on to UK consumers, thereby diminishing a measure of price competitiveness and perhaps driving spending back towards the High Street. We shall see, of course.
And there were goodies for our smaller builders hidden in the details. A billion pounds (say it quickly and it doesn’t sound much) for SME house builders by way of low cost loans from the British Business Bank and an additional £500m for the Housing Infrastructure Fund. Those 650,000 new homes won’t build themselves, after all.
A lucky nine housing associations were awarded a further £635m to build 13,000 new homes and there was even an extra £10m to help local authorities in areas of high housing demand employ more planners.
On and on it went, with money for roads, railways, pot-holes and our big-city Metro Mayors’ favoured projects.
Have the Tories become late converts to the importance of urban vitality? They might reasonably point to the Development Corporations of the eighties, the City Challenge authorities of the nineties and the recent development of metro mayors as evidence they’ve always loved our urban heartlands, which does rather beg the question of why they scrapped the RDAs. But that would be to get political, and that’s the job of the budget, not this blog.
What is clear is that there’s fresh momentum behind our urban realm and a measure of policy innovation to match the private sector’s desire to drive change and investment. The key, as it always is with these things, is ensuring quality, not just in design terms but more crucially for our High Streets and those urban centres struggling to compete with the biggest cities, in terms of place making.
This can be aided by a vibrant independent retail scene, of course, but local authorities have a key role to play in terms of the design and management of a public realm that encourages dwell time and unlocks responsive private investment keen to animate these new improved spaces. Perhaps that’s where the Future High Streets Fund comes in. We must hope so.