To what extent do you agree with the statement: ‘Decentralisation has been the dominant force in the UK in the past 50 years’? (40 marks)
Decentralisation is the movement of people, money, and businesses out of central areas. This essay will show how the factors of suburbanisation, counter-urbanisation and out of town shopping centres have contributed to decentralisation. However, it will also illustrate how processes such as urban regeneration and city centre renewal have worked against it.
Suburbanisation is the movement of people, money, and businesses from central areas to the rural-urban fringe. The process occurs predominantly due to inner-city decline, particularly relating to air pollution and crime. For example, 4300 people die in London every year due to respiratory diseases related to air pollution, and you are twice as likely to be a victim of violent crime there than anywhere else in the UK. This, combined with the Rural Idyll (the perception of a higher quality of life outside central areas; be that in the suburbs or small rural areas) is a major push factor for suburbanisation to areas such as Epsom Downs (on the outskirts of London), which left mostly low-income households in the run down inner city.
This push factor led to an 11.9% population increase in Epsom Downs between 2009 and 2011, with the majority of new residents coming from London after 30% of the city based population moved to the rural-urban fringe in preceding decades. The migration stimulated housing demand that led to a significant increase in the wealth of the area; the average house price is over £100,000 more than that of the UK as a whole. This shows, in terms of the movement of people and money, how suburbanisation has contributed to decentralisation being a dominant force in the past 50 years. Moreover, it is particularly apparent that the trend of decentralisation applied mostly to wealthier households, as demonstrated by the cost of the areas they migrated to.
Counter-urbanisation is the movement of people, money, and businesses from central areas to smaller urban areas or rural areas, thus skipping the rural-urban fringe. This process is very similar to suburbanisation in terms of its causes: the decreasing quality of life associated with living in central areas. Bayston Hill in Shropshire has experienced the effects of counter-urbanisation significantly in the last 50 years. Since 1961, the population has more than doubled as people have migrated from the nearby town of Shrewsbury. This has, again, contributed to the wealth of the area, with 25% of residents being in managerial or professional occupations. Greater wealth in Bayston Hill has caused a greater profit motive for outside businesses. As such, more businesses have also migrated to the area, including a Spar supermarket and two branch banks, which have caused a further increase in wealth by boosting the local economy. Therefore, Bayston Hill demonstrates the movement of people, money, and businesses from central areas; supporting the notion that decentralisation has been a dominant force in the UK in recent decades, with affluent members of the population again representing the majority of the trend.
The changing nature of retail is something that is particularly important when considering the money and business aspects of decentralisation. Over time, this has moved from high street shopping to large out-of-town shopping centres, such as the Trafford Centre near Manchester. These centres are able to exploit economies of scale in order to lower costs and increase output. The lower prices and flagship stores that have resulted from this encouraged 29.4 million people to visit the Trafford Centre in 2005. This could also be attributed to the increased availability of leisure facilities at shopping centres, such as the Bowling Alley and Cinema that feature at the Trafford Centre. Equally, improving transport links and increased car ownership (there are now 30 million more cars on the road than there were in 1950) have helped increase footfall at these out-of-town retail outlets.
The Trafford Centre has particularly benefited from nearby links with roads such as the M60, as well as 11,000 spaces of free parking (something not available in the city centre). Of course, the negative impacts of this nature of retail demand are mostly felt by competitors in central areas. The changing patterns of consumers’ shopping have caused five areas of Greater Manchester to have shop vacancy rates of over 25%, compared to the national average of 14.3%. This means that the profit generated in this area stagnates significantly, as small local businesses cannot compete with the low average costs offered at larger outlets elsewhere. These impacts further strengthen the argument for decentralisation being dominant, as the concentration of money and businesses diverges away from central areas. It again seems that the trend applies more to those of higher wealth, namely large businesses and those who are able to afford a car – public transport access for the poor and/or elderly is still limited.
However, in the last decade, efforts have been made to stem the loss of income in central areas. One of the figureheads of this response is the Birmingham Bullring, a shopping centre located in the heart of Birmingham’s CBD. This retail area was completely rebuilt in 2003, demonstrating city centre renewal. The project was retail-led, meaning the key decision makers were generally profit motivated, however this was needed as Birmingham had experienced a 12% decline in CBD spending after the construction of Merry Hill shopping centre on its outskirts.
The new Bullring cost roughly £500m, with £2m being spent on art features that added to its aesthetic appeal (something that was lacking in the concrete Birmingham of the 1960s). The outcome of the project was hugely positive. It now attracts 38 million visitors per year, and, on top of the existing revenue, £59m of additional expenditure, meaning the centre will eventually pay for itself. Of this annual turnover, £6.9m goes to government tax revenue, which can cause a positive multiplier effect for the economy through government investment. One of the key changes is the 40% increase in retail space, which allows more businesses to set up at the Bullring. Therefore, this illustrates a movement of money and businesses into Birmingham’s CBD, which shows the Bullring to be working against decentralisation and in particular the decentralisation of retail.
Urban regeneration also aims to reverse decentralisation and address the issues resulting from a spiral of decline. Urban Development Corporations are one aspect of this regeneration, including the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC). In this property-led regeneration scheme, the key decision makers were businesses. This meant that many aspects of the project were aimed to appeal to investors, and as a result, the London Docklands attracted £7.7 billion of private sector investment after the regeneration was completed. Some of this investment allowed the influx of 2,700 new businesses, which combined with the expansion of existing businesses created 120,000 new jobs.
A result of this was a halving of the unemployment rate, and an inward migration of ‘white collar’ (highly skilled, service industry) workers. There were also efforts to achieve environmental sustainability, with over 200,000 trees being planted. This would have reduced air pollution, as well as making the area more aesthetically appealing, potentially attracting greater investment and migration, which would have produced a greater economic return. Whilst the corporate driven nature of the LDDC did not necessarily benefit local low-skilled, ‘blue collar’ workers, it created a movement of people, money and businesses back into London, thus meeting its aim of reversing decentralisation. This suggests that, in more recent years, decentralisation has not been a dominant force in the UK.
Based on the evidence shown, it appears that the statement is definitely true to the extent of those on middle and high incomes. Although, given that the UK is a developed country, meaning these people make up the majority of the country’s population and national income, it could be argued that decentralisation has been a dominant force in the UK as a whole for the last 50 years. However, after the success of initiatives such as the new Bullring and the LDDC, it looks as if re-urbanisation could be the dominant force in the next 50 years, as more central areas adopt similar ideas and encourage the return of people, money, and businesses.