My commission saw alarming disparity between the southeast and the rest, affecting towns and cities alike. (This article features in “All about towns,” Prospect’s new report in partnership with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation)by Bob Kerslake / July 7, 2019 / Leave a comment
Much has been said and written since the EU referendum on under-served places in Britain and the predicament of many of England’s towns.
There is good reason for this. Economically, many of these places have fared badly over some decades, particularly outside of the southeast. This economic decline has been accompanied by reduced opportunity for those who live there and, in some instances, by deep rooted social issues. A symbol of all this in recent years has been the rapid and visible deterioration of town centres, with a rise in the number of charity shops or vacant buildings.
Coastal towns such as Grimsby and Blackpool have fared especially badly as their traditional businesses have faced rapid change. There has been a spirited fightback by local leaders who have made a difference, despite the limited resources available to them.
But in May of this year the UK2070 Commission, of which I am chair, published its first report into regional inequality. It found that the UK is the most unequal large country in the developed world in this respect. To turn this around will require concerted effort over a long period of time.
For anyone familiar with England’s towns, the challenges they face has been evident for some time. The surprising thing has been how long it has taken some national politicians to wake up to them. What has brought the issue to a head, of course, is that in many of these towns, large majorities voted for Brexit. This in turn led the main political parties to look more closely at the voting intentions of those living there—and how they might impact on their own political fortunes.
This renewed focus should be welcomed by anyone who has watched the decline and wanted to do something about it. However, there are real risks in the narrow way in which the arguments are being made that could endanger the very thing that people are seeking to achieve.
First, while much can be done in the individual towns themselves—and I have seen this for myself in the excellent Greater Grimsby development initiative—the economies of towns do not sit in isolation. They form part of—and critically depend on—the success of the wider economy of their surrounding areas. So towns do need their own plans to improve education and…