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The economic and political divide between cities and towns is real and growing. So what can we do about it?

Something tells me CityMetric isn’t the best place to write a blistering critique of our city-centric economic model. So before I begin, let me establish my own urban credentials: I think cities are great. I live in one because it’s a stimulating and interesting place to live.

But I also live in a city because that’s where the jobs are. My choice of place to live is somewhat limited by the nature of the British economy.

And what if I didn’t think cities were great? What if I wanted to stay in the town where I grew up? How would I make a living then?

That’s the dilemma facing millions of people who live in England’s towns. While there are some exceptions, many towns in this country are struggling. Coastal towns like Blackpool and Jaywick are some of the most deprived places in the UK. A lot of the towns originally built around single, now-defunct industries have never rediscovered their purpose.

And then there are the towns which act as satellites to big cities. Some of these, particularly in the South, are home to relatively wealthy people. But that wealth tends to get sucked into the big cities, as commuters spend their earnings in the urban economy rather than on their local high streets.

In short, our towns are in trouble.

(Before anyone starts getting hung up about cathedrals and suchlike, for the purposes of this blog we are talking about population density and nothing else. ‘Cities’ are England’s nine biggest urban agglomerations, ‘large towns’ are places with between 100,000 and 500,000 people, and ‘small towns’ are places with between 75,000 and 100,000 people.)

New research by Professor Will Jennings of Southampton University for the New Economics Foundation confirms that there is a serious economic divide between cities and towns. Using an ‘index of economic decline’, he finds that the 20 constituencies showing least decline are all in cities, while towns cluster at the other end of the spectrum.

He also shows how that divide is increasingly political as well as economic. Put simply, over the last 12 years Labour has massively increased its support in the cities, but hasn’t done the same in towns. While the Conservatives trailed Labour in small towns in 2005, they now have a big lead. And since 2005, the more a place has declined, the more likely it is to have increased its vote share for the Conservatives.

Clearly the divide between cities and towns is real and growing. So what can we do about it?

Whenever the government sets out to address Britain’s lopsided economy – whether it’s new transport investment, industrial strategy or regional devolution – it struggles to look beyond cities. HS2 is about connecting big cities. The much-trumpeted industrial strategy is mainly about investing in high-tech, high-productivity industries which cluster in cities (as well as some of the towns which buck the overall trend by having their own economic vitality, like Cambridge). And the devolution agenda is entirely city-centric, with big urban centres like London and Manchester hording all the new powers.

It doesn’t have to be this way. At the New Economics Foundation we work with people in towns all over the country who are determined to build real and vibrant economies where they live, rather than relying on a model which has failed to deliver for them for too long.


But they need help. That’s why we’re proposing a ‘manifesto for towns’. We want to see an approach which lets towns build strong economies from the bottom up.

That means creating local supply chains so local businesses can start to build their own ecosystem. It means investing in the so-called ‘foundational economy’ – sectors like retail, transport, food processing and health which we all rely on every day, no matter where we live. It means building transport and housing which supports thriving towns rather than sucking capital into the big cities. And it means doing devolution properly, with real involvement of citizens and communities in the development of local policy.

Of course, none of this is to say that cities are problem-free zones. They are of course home to startling inequalities and grinding poverty. But when we’re thinking about the urgent problems in our economy, let’s not get stuck on cities. This is a simple plea – let’s not forget our towns.

Will Brett is director of news and media at the New Economics Foundation.

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