The government, and in particular the chancellor, George Osborne, hopes that the “Northern Powerhouse” will be one of the crowning achievements of this Parliament. Its plan is to hand power and money, on a large scale, from the government in London to combined authorities based around cities in the north of England.
While cities are the focus of most of the attention, many of England’s Northern towns are included in this process. However, as Demos’ new report shows, these satellite towns have a distinct social and economic identity.
It’s encouraging that they too, as part of large combined authorities, will get their hands on new powers and funding. But it will be important to ensure that the devolution process is sympathetic to their needs: we cannot let those towns get left behind as northern cities power ahead.
While researching the Talk of the Town report, we unearthed a concerning gulf between the socio-economic performance of English towns and their neighbouring cities. Overall, three in five towns underperform their neighbouring cities. Among the nineteen towns we looked at – in the North East, North West, and Yorkshire – just six outperformed their neighbouring cities, with the other thirteen underperforming. Particularly strong underperformers included Castleford, Kirkby, Rotherham, West Bromwich and Barnsley.
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In the south, devolution outside of London has not progressed as far or had as much attention. Here, most towns are also underperforming their comparator cities, with just three out of ten (Totton, Eastleigh and Fareham) outperforming.
The key difference between the north and the south is that towns in the south are doing well in absolute terms; it’s just that cities are doing even better. In the north, towns are lagging behind their neighbouring cities, which also tend to have a low score on our index of socio-economic performance.
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However, the Midlands is an important exception: seven towns are outperforming their comparator city, while six are underperforming. West Bridgford, Beverley and Sutton Coldfield are the top three outperforming towns across the 42 included in our analysis.
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While this presents a mixed picture, it is interesting that most towns either significantly outperform or underperform their comparator cities: there are few with similar scores on our index of socio-economic performance.
In particular, we found that most cities were bunched in the middle two quartiles of socio-economic performance. Towns tended to be either strong or weak performers, with few falling near the average.
There is no simple explanation for all of this. We found that towns were underperforming on key education and health measures, although they did outperform in several other areas, notably employment indicators.
Much has been made of the fact that what’s right for Manchester isn’t necessarily what’s right for Yorkshire or the West Midlands. Each has its own distinct identity and needs.
However, it’s also important to recognise the often substantial differences between different areas within individual devolution agreements. West Bridgford is not Nottingham, and Castleford is not Leeds. For devolution to work, the government, and the new combined authorities, must recognise this.
Charlie Cadywould is a researcher at Demos.
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