‘A Plague of Cities’: How & Why Have Towns Been Overlooked?

‘A Plague of Cities’: How & Why Have Towns Been Overlooked?

In recent years, we have seen a measurable political divide emerge between our towns and cities. Once the bedrock of the Labour Party’s electoral coalition, the political map in Britain is now very different. This is symptomatic of an out-of-touch political elite who are so focussed on investing in cities that they have forgotten about those outside of the city system. This approach has resulted in an irreconcilable divide which spans from the quality of public services we receive to the power of one’s vote.  

This is not a phenomenon unique to Britain. Globalisation has stoked this divide, as one might expect… Globally.  Where Conservatives in Britain were focussed on the red wall and ‘left behind towns’ such as Workington, Marine Le Pen would invoke the‘forgotten France’. Both of these groups have drawn their support from neglected areas, outside of urban centres.

Towns have become sites of discontent. Indeed, with the situation as it is, with social democratic parties’ votes primarily coming from urban areas, it is likely they may never return to power again. However, this does not have to be our future—one of perpetual division, anger, and an increasingly polarised country. Our current, over-centralised system has resulted in this failure, although there is another way.

What Has Helped Create The Divide Between Towns & Cities?

There has been a focus on the benefits of globalisation, with little regard for the profound social change it creates. As the Labour MP and co-founder of the Centre for Towns Think Tank, Lisa Nandy, puts it:

Models of growth in the city regions that are predicated on the belief that by concentrating investment in cities the benefits will ‘trickle out’ are underpinned by a view that towns are simply satellites of our cities, rather than distinct places whose identities and success matter in their own right to those who live there.

In this conception of economics and investment, towns are feeder units and are seen to be substandard compared to cities.

According to the ONS over half the UK population live in towns. While this report shows that towns situated near cities have experienced (from 2009-17) employment growth above the average, those most impoverished have experienced a decline of 39%.

The impact of this model for economic development has been profoundly harmful to towns on several fronts. First of all, towns have been struggling to get investment, as an ever increasing majority of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) has been concentrated in cities (over 3/5).  

Cities have become the dominate force in the UK economy. As the Centre for Cities shows:

Despite covering just 9 per cent of land, British cities account for 54 per cent of the population, 63 per cent of economic output and 71 per cent of knowledge services jobs. This concentration of the UK economy in specific places occurs because of the benefits that cities provide – namely access to lots of workers and proximity to other businesses.

Ultimately, this has created a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which towns have less and less critical infrastructure and thus working-age populations are attracted more and more to city life. This represents a profound inequality in opportunity, which has led towns to get older, while cities are simply getting younger, as illustrated below.

The consequence of this ageing process is an increased strain on the local authorities of towns. With lower working-age populations, the amount of revenue at their disposal is more limited, which means that there is less room to stimulate the local economy.

Councils, at present, have a statuary obligation to provide social care to their citizens. An augmenting elderly population has inevitably increased the strain on these services.  Life is made even more difficult for older people as the reduction in the working-age population has led to cuts of 10% to bus services. Thus, the spiral of decline continues, as without a working-age population, local authorities cannot provide the public services and transport infrastructure required to help those living in and around towns. Is it any wonder then that cities are far more economically productive than towns?

How Does This Divide Manifest Itself?

Towns that are removed, both geographically and financially, from their local city have been demonstrated to feel a more profound sense of decline, in which Blackpool, for example, has the highest rate of people on anti-depressants in the country; a damning statistic which reflects both the lack of economic funding and the attention that governments are placing on towns and establishing the social care that is necessary for these citizens.

This sense of hopelessness, perpetual economic decline, and a disinterested centre have culminated in very different political and social views. As Jennings and Stoker illustrate, there is a difference in values between towns and cities. They’ve found that people in cities are more likely to identify as British and be more pro-immigration, while those in towns are more likely to identify themselves as English.

Towns such as Wigan and Newport, which are far removed from a city, have had the greatest number of high street vacancies in the country.  This is a symptom of the disparity in earning, in which people in cities, like Cambridge and York, make on average £634 more per month than those living in Wigan or Newport.

This is due to a divide in the nature of employment between urban metropolises and ‘backwater’ towns. The New Economics Foundation has found those in cities tend to work in jobs with more ‘cultural capital’, including finance and public sector jobs, whereas those situated in towns are more likely to have precariat roles and have zero-hour contracts.

With a lack of wealth, opportunity, and entertainment, drug related crimes have become a more acute problem in towns than cities. According to the BBC, towns were home to the most significant increases in drug crime,  while cities saw the greatest decrease. Towns are now becoming the home to problems long associated with the issues of the inner city.

However, those living in cities have been facing their own set of problems. Since the pandemic was announced in March of 2020, the city-dwellers of the UK have had live in  crowded and often shared housing, while relying heavily upon public transport has served as breeding grounds for the virus. This has been a consistent marker of plagues throughout history, in which 70,000 Londoners died during the great plague of 1655

Furthermore, the consequences of lockdown are also more sorely felt in cities. Being forced to stay inside becomes an altogether more difficult proposition when 21% of Londoners do not have access to a garden. The economic consequences for large cities like London, specifically their city centres (reliant on footfall from commuting workers) has been profound. This represents a moment of change. Cities like Paris are re-designing themselves, creating greener spaces and focussing less on building as much accommodation as possible.

However, there are warnings that our focus on cities is already changing. With experts in the Financial Times, predicting that suburban and town-based common working spaces will be a feature of our ‘new normal’.

A Manifesto For Change:

The New Economics Foundation has proposed a manifesto for towns built on:

  • The creation of local supply chains to reduce resource flight away from towns.
  • An improvement in working conditions and pay within the foundational economy (jobs that help others be productive, for example, childcare).
  • Improving infrastructure within towns to allow for cooperation between different town-based economic sectors.
  • Further devolution to enable local government to provide for the needs of their citizens.

At the heart of this is plan is both the creation of incentives for investment and for those of working age to stay and local citizen involvement in creating this new vision for towns.

Local authorities have responded to this initiative by establishing community wealth building projects, so that they can begin to build more robust and local supply chains:

Community wealth building offers an opportunity for local people to take back control, to ensure that the benefits of local growth are invested in their local areas, are used to support investment in productive economic activities and that people and their local institutions can work together on an agenda of shared benefit.

Preston City Council

The government too is now responding to this crisis by creating the new Towns Fund, under which towns will put forward bids to be one of a hundred communities to win funding from a pot of £3.6 billion; which aims to repurpose town centres after the collapse of the retail sector.

The arts are another way we can unlock the potential of towns, with 44% of the British public stating that the arts and cultural scene of a location were essential for deciding where they would move to. Investment, in cities such as Hull, has seen the local economy grow by more than £300 million. There is also evidence that 68% of the British public believe that culture and the arts engender their community and sense of belonging.  A cultural revolution has transformative potential. Indeed, it has been shown to be successful in coastal towns such as Margate, increasing the number of creative jobs by 30%. There is widespread demand for this and the benefits are proven, so why hasn’t it happened?

Creating meaningful democratic institutions is both a method of sparking greater participation in the regions of the UK. This been done through the devolution process and the creation of metro mayoralties in areas such as Greater Manchester and the Liverpool city region.

This process is still ongoing, with the first Mayoral election for the metro mayor of West-Yorkshire is taking place this year, which reflects a shift in the location of mayoralties to encompass more towns. Although turnouts have tended to be small, only being 28% for the first Greater Manchester election- Mayors have risen to prominence during the pandemic, standing up for their region’s interest. Continuing this form of devolution represents a shift, no matter how small, of power moving away from the centre and towards a variety of regions throughout the UK.

There is an alternative solution, put forwards by think tanks such as the Social Market Foundation. That is to abandon high street shops, let them die and replace them with housing- up to 800,000 new homes. They argue this is an apt response to the movement to online shopping caused by the coronavirus. They go on to criticise politicians’ futile promises of saving the high street.

There is an alternative solution, put forwards by think tanks such as the Social Market Foundation. That is to abandon high street shops, let them die and replace them with housing- up to 800,000 new homes. They argue this is an apt response to the movement to online shopping caused by the coronavirus. They go on to criticise politicians’ futile promises of saving the high street.

However, this appears to be a pre-emptive move. YouGov polling indicates that nearly 2/5 brits shopped locally during the pandemic and even  more significantly still, 46% of those suggested that they would continue to shop locally after the pandemic. Abandoning these high streets seems a rash course of action. Reform is necessary, but perhaps, not as drastically as suggested by the Social Market Foundation.

The divide between cities and towns is profound. It speaks to a problem at the heart of our politics. How long have stories of high street decline and the collapse of public services been in our media? Yet, we have failed to adapt towns to globalisation. Towns are not cesspits, but nor are they the sites of growth. Opportunity is now concentrated in the city, and the town is now home to decline. There are no easy solutions. But we need to pay more attention to this issue lest these issues worsen, and many are left without somewhere they can truly call home.   

Written by Ruairidh Maclean. Illustrated by Andrea Miranda.

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