Covered market: the politics of towns

January 26th, 2020

Since the election, talk of towns has been the talk of the political town.  Labour politicians and Conservative politicians alike have concluded that is the key to political success right now.

This apparent unity conceals a string of latent ambiguities and confusions.  What are towns? The Conservatives were mocked when they recently launched their Town Of The Year competition in Wolverhampton, which has been a city for nearly 20 years.  The optics could certainly have been better.

Lisa Nandy has made the problems of towns one of the main planks of her campaign for the Labour leadership.  She is a leading light in Centre For Towns, a think tank “dedicated to providing research and analysis of our towns”. That organisation lists 894 settlements in Britain that it considers towns, It reserves the word “city” for Britain’s 12 biggest cities.  (Wolverhampton is a town on their classification.) When most people are talking about towns, I doubt they are thinking of Kingston-upon-Hull, Salford, Southampton or Plymouth.  But all of these are “towns” on the Centre For Towns definition.

Next, what are the problems of towns?  And here we see a confusion between three entirely separate crises.  These three crises have come simultaneously to produce a sense of despondency and decline.

The first aspect of this is the impact of austerity.  Following cuts by central government, councils have pared back their services.  Libraries are being closed, potholes are not being filled, subsidised bus services are becoming skeletal.  The public didn’t notice much for quite a while but they are noticing now.  This is a common problem up and down the country.

Separately, right now we are seeing a crisis in retail as spending moves from the shop floor to online services.  This also is affecting every part of the country. It is particularly visible in the high streets of our urban centres and has a big effect on community life.  Some famous names, like BHS, have gone bust (we can expect more to follow). Others, like Debenhams and Marks & Spencer, have closed down their less profitable shops as they scramble to fight off the challenge of Amazon.  The effects are felt disproportionately outside the very largest centres because smaller places have smaller markets.

Thirdly, some towns are suffering from a crisis of identity.  Towns were founded for a purpose. If a mill town doesn’t have a mill any more or a seaside town no longer has tourists, they urgently need to find a new one.  Some have managed it, some have not. The ones that have not are in deep deep trouble.

The first problem is actually quite easy to solve for the government.  It simply needs to reverse the cuts to local government spending. If the government is serious about improving local infrastructure, there are few measures that it could take that could have as speedy and useful effects.  It might seek to ensure that the money is not moved elsewhere by hypothecating grants to local government, but if the government is going to hose money around on infrastructure projects, this is a good place to start. Where the money is going to come from is a separate problem but since no political party is now the least bit concerned about fiscal responsibility, let’s not be worrywarts.

The second problem is probably a problem that the government should not try to solve directly.  The public lament the sad state of their local high streets even as they speed in their cars to the out of town shopping centres and order their goods online.  The retail sector will reach a new equilibrium in due course between online and bricks-and-mortar spending. This is not a problem requiring government regulation.  

There is an opportunity here.  Britain suffers from having far too many identitikit towns and cities, dominated at ground level by the fascias of retail chains.  As the retail chains withdraw from the high streets, local character can be restored. Government should be looking to encourage new uses of town centre buildings (whether as offices, as private residences or something quite different).  In thriving towns, this evolution will be accepted as stoically as every past evolution of town centres. They could look far more interesting than they do now.

The third problem, that of failing towns, is not a general problem, it is highly specific.  It is also the hardest of the three to deal with. To be cynical, the success or failure of government is unlikely to hinge on it.  Too few Parliamentary seats depend on this problem being resolved. It is, however, what many people subconsciously have in mind when they think of the problems of towns, so the government needs to have some form of plan.  I’m sure it will have some fine words. I’m less sure that they will amount to all that much.

The opposition, however, would probably be ill-advised to place too much emphasis on towns. If the government gives proper attention to it, it has a good chance of making a difference to towns’ prospects that the public gives it credit for.  Labour could easily see a focus on towns backfire on them.

The problems of the large cities outside London look much more intractable and in the long term are much more important for Britain’s future.  Much of Britain’s underperformance can be attributed to their underperformance. Perhaps more attention should be given to them.

Alastair Meeks