New deal for the north? It’s become an all-too familiar cry through the 1930s to the present with – let us not forget – some significant, successful initiatives over the years to lift the economic and social fortunes of the wider region. No longer. But something is now stirring: growing support for a pan-northern housing and regeneration strategy addressing smaller towns, and not simply big cities.

In this century, particularly, England has become dangerously unbalanced, with a widening divide between London, the greater south east and the rest. That’s been compounded by nine years of austerity and, among some ministers, blind ideology in government: a visceral dislike of all things regional and an indifference to the impact of savage cuts to local council budgets, hitting the poorest areas hardest.

The state, locally and nationally, has now been so hollowed out that both regional and urban policy – those twin pillars meant to deliver a degree of equity to a divided nation – has effectively disappeared.

After 2010, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government abolished an entire apparatus - regional development agencies, government regional offices, and all. Worse, remaining national incentives have been directed to larger cities and conurbations to the exclusion of smaller towns and communities, now given the unflattering label ‘left-behind’ places. The government’s rationale appeared simple: encourage growth in big cities and, assuredly, it would spill-over to marginalised places a few miles away. It hasn’t happened.

Sure, the government has, belatedly, recognised the problem – on the back of that fateful EU referendum three years’ ago. When 62 of the 73 local authority areas in the north voted to leave the EU in June, 2016 – and 6.3 million northern people live away from big cities, often in towns and places pejoratively labelled ‘post-industrial’ – both government and opposition belatedly took notice. Did the Brexit vote partly represent a revolt by the forgotten? Theresa May seemed to think so. She promised a radical agenda in which “no one and no community is left behind.” It took her almost three years to promise anything specific. But a £1.6bn ‘Stronger Towns Fund’, announced in March, had all the hallmarks of a hastily cobbled-together package. It is to be spread over seven years, representing a “paltry sum”, according to critics.

So-called ‘left-behind’ places entered the national political consciousness not long after an event organised by the Town and Country Planning Association and Newcastle University in November, 2017, supported by Homes for the North. We called it ‘Inclusive England’ – a pointed reminder that what remained of regional and urban policy was (and is) both heavily concentrated in south east England and in big city-regions.

Next week (Friday, June 21), we will follow this up with another major event at Newcastle University – supported again by Homes for the North, which represents 17 of the largest housing associations*. In calling for a new pan-northern body to oversee housing and regeneration – with initiatives tailored to specific areas – Homes for the North argues that government investment is currently largely targeted on the south east to relieve housing “affordability” rather than the quite different needs of the north. “While there is a similar need for decent, affordable new homes and thriving businesses, many areas still struggle to tackle the legacy of their industrial past,” the group says.

Moreover, it laments that specific area-based renewal programmes have largely disappeared, resulting in piecemeal renewal often focussed on growing city centres ... “with little trickle-down prosperity to adjacent...locations…” As such, new funding is needed to tackle poor housing, fragmented land ownership and, sometimes, contaminated land – thus making it fit for investment. Is that too much to ask?

Fiona Howie, TCPA chief executive – and a key speaker at the Newcastle conference – is adamant that renewal in older communities, particularly in the north of England and the adjoining midlands, should be given equal prominence to the creation of new communities in areas of high housing demand. “As a progressive housing and planning charity, dedicated to creating better, well-connected, carbon efficient places – new, and renewed – we are determined to campaign throughout the country for both a new housing deal and the agencies with the clout and financial muscle capable of delivering genuinely affordable homes for all,” she says.

On 21 June, alongside housing and renewal specialists, we will bring together not only experts in their field but also people from ‘turnaround towns’ – Wooler, Amble, for instance – who have worked wonders through local endeavour, alongside local councillors, those with an ear close to the ground.

As things stand, few additional support mechanisms are now in place aside from EU regional and social funding, which delivers around £1.5bn annually to the more challenging parts of the UK.

In its last election manifesto, Conservatives promised a ‘shared prosperity fund’ to replace European funding – distinct, so far, from the PM’s initiative. But Stephen Kinnock, MP for Aberavon in South Wales and chair of an all-party parliamentary group on EU regional aid, fears plans for the fund have been kicked into the long grass.

But at least a new consensus is now emerging, across parties, challenging the received wisdom that encouraging growth, and devolution settlements with elected mayors in larger population centres, will somehow spill-over into surrounding, poorer places – although the new, mayoral-led North of Tyne Combined Authority, embracing Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland, offers the potential for an urban-rural agenda, quite distinct from other areas. Who knows? Small towns might come to the fore.

Professor Andy Pike, of Newcastle University’s Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies, is not alone in questioning whether the limits of what he calls “city-centrism” have peaked. “Growing ... disparities in the UK – and it has among the highest levels internationally - suggest that the wider spread of benefits ... have not reached the people and places ‘left-behind’ or sufficiently connected them to central urban prosperity,” he argues. That, then, represents a challenge for the North of Tyne mayor, Jamie Driscoll.

As things stand, the Carnegie UK Trust, which for some time has been addressing the plight of smaller towns, despairs that they fail to get the attention of policy-makers. Jen Wallace, its head of policy – also a speaker at next week’s conference – says conversations invariably focus on the high street. “It is rare to find evidence or policy on the wider role of the town as a place in which people live, work and play,” she says. “Policy-makers often reduce towns to a description of their needs - places of multiple deprivation, ageing, poor, dilapidated – and not of opportunity.”

The pity is that Theresa May has wasted three years trying to deliver any strategy for ‘left-behind’ places, while austerity continues to bear down on them with a vengeance.

Rather than warm ministerial words, action is needed to recreate the mechanisms capable of delivering support alongside vision and determination at the top – qualities lacking for quite some time. That means a real new deal for the north.

Hopefully a new government will drive the agenda forward with a re-born urban and regional policy focussing on all places - and not just big cities.

This blog was written by Peter Hetherington, a past chair of the TCPA and former regional affairs editor of the Guardian.

*Newcastle University’s Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies, and the Town and Country Planning Association – supported by Homes for the North - are holding a free major conference, Inclusive England; Regions For All, on Friday, June 21: (12.00 for 12.30, Bamburgh Room, Newcastle University.) For more details and to book tickets, click here.