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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Here’s how Henry Ford and IKEA could provide the key to solving the housing crisis

A flatpack house designed by architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, on display at the Royal Academy, London, in 2013. Image: Getty.

For many people, the housing market is not a welcoming place. The rungs of the property ladder seem to get further and further out of reach. There are loud calls to build hundreds of thousands of new homes (and equally loud demands that they’re not built in anyone’s back yard).

If there was ever a time to introduce mass-produced affordable housing, surely that time is now.

The benefits of mass production have been well known since Henry Ford’s car factories made the Model T back in 1908. It was only made in one colour, black, for economic reasons. Not because it was the cheapest colour of paint, but because it was the colour that dried the quickest.

This allowed the production line to operate at faster, more cost effective, speeds. And ultimately, it meant the product could be sold at a more attractive cost to the customer.

This approach, where processes are tested to achieve increasingly efficient production costs, is yet to filter properly into the construction of houses. This makes sense in a way, as not everybody wants exactly the same type of house.

Historically, affordable mass-produced housing removed a large amount of customisations, to ensure final costs were controlled. But there is another way. Builders and architects have the ability to create housing that allows a level of flexibility and customisation, yet also achieves the goal of affordability.


Back in 2006, the “BoKlok” approach to affordable housing was launched to great acclaim in the UK. Literally translated from Swedish, the term means “live smart”. Originally created from a collaboration between flat-pack favourite IKEA and Swedish construction giant Skanska, the BoKlok housing approach was to allow for selected customisation to maximise individuality and choice for the customers. But at the same time, it ensured that larger house building components were duplicated or mass-produced, to bring down the overall costs.

Standard elements – wall panels, doors, windows – were made in large numbers to bring the elemental costs down. This approach ensured the costs were controlled from the initial sketch ideas through to the final design choices offered to the customers. The kitchens and bathrooms were designed to be flexible in terms of adding additional units. Draw and cupboard fronts interchangeable. Small options that provided flexibility, but did not impact on overall affordability.

It’s a simple approach that has worked very well. More than 10,000 BoKlok houses have now been built, mainly in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with a small number in the UK.

But it is only part of the architectural equation. The affordable housing market is vital, but the cost of making these homes more adaptable is rarely considered.

Flexibility is key. The needs of a house’s inhabitants change. Families can grow (and shrink) and require more room, so the costs of moving house reappear. One clever response to this, in BoKlok homes, has been to allow “built in” flexibility.

Loft living

This flexibility could include a loft space that already has flooring and a built in cupboard on a lower floor which can be simply dismantled and replaced with a “flat-pack style” staircase that can be purchased and installed with minimal disruption to the existing fabric.

Weeks of builders removing walls, plastering and upheaval are replaced by a trip to the IKEA store to purchase the staircase and the booking of a subcontractor to fit it. The original design accounted for this “future option” and is built into the core of the house.

The best approach to new affordable housing should consider combinations of factors that look at design, materials and processes that have yet to be widely used in the affordable housing market.

And the construction sector needs to look over its shoulder at other market places – especially the one that Henry Ford dominated over a century ago. Today’s car manufacturers offer customised options in everything from colour to wheel size, interior gadgets to different kinds of headlamp. These options have all been accounted for in the construction and costing of each model.

The ConversationThey share a similar design “platform”, and by doing so, considerably reduce the overall cost of the base model. The benefit is quicker production with the added benefit of a cost model that allows for customisation to be included. It is a method the construction sector should adopt to produce housing where quality and affordability live happily together.

David Morton, Associate Professor in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.