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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Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.


Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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