How can placemaking help to solve the productivity puzzle?

The UK is experiencing a productivity crisis as weak growth becomes a long-term trend across the country.

Tackling this crisis will be a top priority for the next parliament because the consequences are far-reaching – from stagnating living standards to lower levels of growth than any other G7 country.

However, Milton Keynes is currently bucking this trend – it is currently the seventh most productive UK city with the fourth highest number of new economy firms – and this is due in part to how the city has been designed and built.

That’s why Adam Sciberras, Placemaking Director for MKDP, was delighted to contribute to Bidwells’ recently launched report The Productivity Engine which uncovers the fundamental links between place, planning, and productivity.

You can download and read The Productivity Engine from Bidwells in full and you’ll find Adam’s contribution in full below.

Place, Planning, Productivity – Adam Sciberras, Special Projects Director, MKDP 

It’s a well-documented fact that productivity is flatlining across the entire UK. The consequences are stagnating living standards and lower levels of growth compared to other G7 countries. Solving the productivity puzzle must therefore be our collective focus and a priority for the next parliament.

Cities are engines of growth. Driving productivity requires all of them to fire on all cylinders. With a large number of businesses concentrated in city centres, we need to improve transport access to these areas and deliver new affordable homes alongside place-led urban renewal.

Milton Keynes currently ranks seventh in the UK for most productive city and is in the top four of cities with the highest number of new economy firms, according to the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook 2024 barometer.

The opportunity to drive growth and improved productivity in our city is significant particularly in the context of the numbers of productive, new economy businesses in tech plus a buoyant AI market, that have made the city their home. One in three jobs in the city are now in tech and it’s estimated that Milton Keynes generates £3.4bn of GVA from this sector alone.

Radical thinking with business in mind

Our city was built on radical thinking and also conceived with business in mind. So the starting point for Milton Keynes Development Partnership (MKDP) and Milton Keynes City Council is to think about how our urban core must evolve. It’s an evolution which must be inspired by the same commitment to innovation that first inspired our city’s founders.

We are asking these key questions: what should central Milton Keynes provide in property terms to continue to attract new high growth businesses and cater for existing occupiers? What is the housing, leisure and cultural offer for a tech worker in the next 10 years? How can a tech innovation cluster be developed and nurtured in a digital smart city? How can the city’s iconic grid be reimagined  maximised for mass urban transit?

Cities like Milton Keynes cannot deliver improved productivity in isolation. Turning the productivity dial will require a package of national policy support and both Westminster and Whitehall to understand the links between place, planning and productivity.

The policy enablers

What policy changes and Government support would help? Investment in transport networks between cities, and support from the public purse for new urban mass transit within them, remains critical to boosting productivity.

Changes to housing density in cities could be part of long awaited planning reforms and help to deliver housing growth and make better use of land. The UK’s preference for low density housing has contributed to people having long commutes – a factor stifling productivity.  Higher density housing would help expand the labour talent pool in cities.

In Milton Keynes, the economic benefits of higher density housing could also help to support our investment in mass urban transit – a key piece of infrastructure for high performing, productive cities.

However higher density should not always mean tall buildings. Our city is unusual in having space and capacity to grow, so this type of urban form is not necessary.  Policy changes to support ‘medium’ or ‘gentle’ density to help deliver more mid rise buildings of five to ten storeys like those found in many European cities would make a real difference and deliver more human scale places.

Invest in what we have

In the run up to the General Election, new towns have been identified by Labour as key to delivering housing growth, but it’s important that policy commitments can drive urban renewal in our existing cities and towns too.

The economic reality is that the UK does not have the finances to create and deliver another Milton Keynes.  Productivity will be boosted with people living closer to work and new town settlements will not achieve this. Nor can new towns be delivered quickly, so the focus should be on unlocking the opportunities that exist in our great cities.  The key is that policy, urban planning and placemaking has a strategic focus on boosting productivity too.

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