Brian Robson obituary

Other lives: Geographer who guided British policy on urban regeneration

My former colleague Brian Robson, who has died aged 81, was a geographer who helped to develop the Index of Multiple Deprivation, a tool which, from the 1990s onwards, changed the way British governments dealt with socio-economic decline in towns, cities and regions.

The index provided an integrated, extensive and fine-grained understanding of disadvantage, and was one of the bedrocks of the Single Regeneration Budget, which ran from 1994 to 2001 and which put into operation the more integrated approach to area-based regeneration that Brian advocated.

Rather than focusing solely on inner-city neighbourhoods, which had initially attracted attention in the 80s, the SRB extended regeneration into towns and small cities. It promoted a multi-agency approach, supporting integrated regeneration that was more attuned to local circumstances.

Brian was born in Rothbury in Northumberland to Oswel Robson, an electrical engineer, and his wife, Grace, a teacher. He attended the Royal Grammar school in Newcastle from 1950 and went on to read geography at Cambridge University, graduating in 1961.

He completed a full-time PhD in urban social geography at Cambridge in 1964 and then became part of a new generation of urban analysts keen to use various sources of official and unofficial data to accurately characterise the spatial structure of cities. His books Urban Analysis (1969) and Urban Social Areas (1975) laid the methodological groundwork for his later contributions to government policy.

After his PhD Brian became a lecturer in geography at Aberystwyth University, from where he left in 1967 to take up a Harkness fellowship at the University of Chicago, working at the interdisciplinary Center for Urban Studies, headed by the influential planner Jack Meltzer.

In late 1968 he returned to Cambridge as a lecturer in human geography, staying for a decade until a move north in 1977 to become professor of urban geography at Manchester University, where he and I met and where he established the Centre for Urban Policy Studies (CUPS) in 1983, not long after inner-city riots erupted in Manchester and elsewhere.

There he wrote a new book, Those Inner Cities (1988), which identified the failings of British urban policy and later shaped the design of the Single Regeneration Budget. In turn his 1990s work with CUPS on the Index of Multiple Deprivation – commissioned by the Department of Environment – shaped the spatial distribution of area-based funding in the New Labour era.

Brian’s research and policy insights were animated by a strong commitment to equality of opportunity. The lottery of location should not, he insisted, be a dead weight on the lives of those unlucky enough to reside in areas of high unemployment or low quality housing. The Royal Geographical Society awarded him its Founders medal in 2000 and he was made OBE in 2010.

The possessor of a delightfully mellifluous voice, Brian was a wise, kind and straightforward man. He is survived by his wife, Glenna Ransom (nee Conway), a teacher whom he met at Cambridge and married in 1973, and Glenna’s two sons from a previous marriage, Mark and Peter.

Noel Castree

The GuardianTramp

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