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

Blackpool, struggling through 2010. Image: Getty.

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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Barnet council has decided a name for its new mainline station. Exciting!

Artist's impression of the new Brent Cross. Image: Hammerson.

I’ve ranted before about the horror of naming stations after the lines that they’re served by (screw you, City Thameslink). So, keeping things in perspective as ever, I’ve been quietly dreading the opening of the proposed new station in north London which has been going by the name of Brent Cross Thameslink.

I’ve been cheered, then, by the news that station wouldn’t be called that at all, but will instead go by the much better name Brent Cross West. It’s hardly the cancellation of Brexit, I’ll grant, but in 2017 I’ll take my relief wherever I can find it.

Some background on this. When the Brent Cross shopping centre opened besides the A406 North Circular Road in 1976, it was only the third large shopping mall to arrive in Britain, and the first in London. (The Elephant & Castle one was earlier, but smaller.) Four decades later, though, it’s decidedly titchy compared to newer, shinier malls such as those thrown up by Westfield – so for some years now, its owners, Hammerson, have wanted to extend the place.

That, through the vagaries of the planning process, got folded into a much bigger regeneration scheme, known as Brent Cross Cricklewood (because, basically, it extends that far). A new bigger shopping centre will be connected, via a green bridge over the A406, to another site to the south. There you’ll find a whole new town centre, 200 more shops, four parks, 4m square feet of offices space and 7,500 homes.

This is all obviously tremendously exciting, if you’re into shops and homes and offices and not into depressing, car-based industrial wastelands, which is what the area largely consists of at the moment.

The Brent Cross site. Image: Google.

One element of the new development is the new station, which’ll sit between Hendon and Cricklewood on the Thameslink route. New stations are almost as exciting as new shops/homes/offices, so on balance I'm pro.

What I’ve not been pro is the name. For a long time, the proposed station has been colloquially referred to as Brent Cross Thameslink, which annoys me for two reasons:

1) Route names make rubbish modifiers because what if the route name changes? And:

2) It’s confusing, because it’s nearly a mile from Brent Cross tube station. West Hampstead Thameslink (euch), by contrast, is right next to West Hampstead tube.

Various other names have been proposed for the station. In one newsletter, it was Brent Cross Parkway; on Wikipedia, it’s currently Brent Cross South, apparently through confusion about the name of the new town centre development.

This week, though, Barnet council quietly confirmed it’d be Brent Cross West:

Whilst the marketing and branding of BXS needs to be developed further, all parties agree that the station name should build upon the Brent Cross identity already established. Given the station is located to the west of Brent Cross, it is considered that the station should be named Brent Cross West. Network Rail have confirmed that this name is acceptable for operational purposes. Consequently, the Committee is asked to approve that the new station be named Brent Cross West.

Where the new station will appear on the map, marked by a silly red arrow. Image: TfL.

That will introduce another irritating anomaly to the map, giving the impression that the existing Brent Cross station is somehow more central than the new one, when in fact they’re either side of the development. And so:

Consideration has also been given as to whether to pursue a name change for the tube station from “Brent Cross” to “Brent Cross East”.

Which would sort of make sense, wouldn’t it? But alas:

However owing to the very high cost of changing maps and signage London-wide this is not currently being pursued.

This is probably for the best. Only a handful of tube stations have been renamed since 1950: the last was Shepherd’s Bush Market, which was until 2008 was simply Shepherd's Bush, despite being quite a long way from the Shepherd's Bush station on the Central line. That, to me, suggests that one of the two Bethnal Green stations might be a more plausible candidate for an early rename.


At any rate: it seems unlikely that TfL will be renaming its Brent Cross station to encourage more people to use the new national rail one any time soon. But at least it won’t be Brent Cross Thameslink.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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