Spatial Visions as Soft Institutions – the case of the Atlantic Gateway in North West England

Contributed by Philip O’ Brien, PhD researcher in urban planning at the Department of Civic Design, University of Liverpool

 

‘Soft spaces’ of planning and governance have been associated with the tendency towards non-statutory aspirational territories that are defined according to normative European policy aims, while the concept was originally identified in the context of a large scale state regeneration strategy.

Distinct from both of these types, the Atlantic Gateway is a soft space constructed around the investment strategy of the Peel Group, a privately owned property company with extensive landholdings in the north west of England.  While briefly adopted as a state-led strategy, it is now once more a private sector-led initiative, with a board appointed from across the public and private sectors.

The Atlantic Gateway presents a very different example of soft space to those explored in the literature, both in terms of its ownership and its aim, which is singularly to stimulate investment and growth.  While state-led soft space strategies such as the Thames Gateway and the Hamburg Metropolitan Region are closely intertwined with the ‘hard’ spaces of government in the region, the Atlantic Gateway instead operates by lobbying central government on major infrastructure investments such as high speed rail and port facilities, while attempting to informally coordinate the activities of city-region economic development partnerships around the soft space of the Atlantic Gateway.  The differentiated array of sub-national governance structures that is seen to have flourished as a result of regulatory experimentation by neoliberal governments over the course of the last three decades is complemented by the Atlantic Gateway, which through private sector activity is able to bring together state investment at a scale not addressed in an integrated way by the state.

Altlantic Gateway

 

The Atlantic Gateway: ‘overlapping connected economic geographies’ (Source: The Atlantic Gateway, 2010).

While the Atlantic Gateway presents itself as a new and innovative space that usurps formal administrative boundaries in the same way as the economic processes it seeks to direct, it is in fact based on the Mersey Belt, a regional spatial vision of longstanding.  Yet the same spatial vision has been used as the background for widely differing planning and governance strategies, reflecting shifts in attitudes to spatial development.  While the 1974 regional strategic plan uses the Mersey Belt to represent the existing urban core of the region into which future growth should be directed in order to prevent further urban decline and dereliction, the Atlantic Gateway adopts the infrastructural assets and skilled labour markets of the same space in order to position the Mersey Belt within the discourse of internationally mobile capital and labour.

Thus the spatial vision of the Mersey Belt functions as a soft institution, highly durable in the planning and governance strategies of the region yet equally malleable to the ends of each given strategy.  Two possible insights may be drawn from this.  First, given the increasingly prominent role of spatial visions in planning and governance, this malleability may prove telling, as politically diverse strategies are able to utilise widely accepted spatial visions in order to gain traction.  Second, the purposes of soft spaces might be well served by the co-option of existing spatial visions for the same reason.

 

Philip O’ Brien, University of Liverpool, contact: Philip.Obrien[at]liverpool.ac.uk

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