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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This interactive map of the Swiss rail network is just really, really cool

The first train crossing the Gotthard Base Tunnel, the world's longest rail tunnel during the opening ceremony near the town of Erstfeld, Switzerland, on 1 June 2016. Image: Getty.

After 500 years of democracy all Switzerland has produced is the cuckoo clock: so said Harry Lime, Orson Welles’ character in The Third Man.

This is terribly unfair – so I’m going to leap to the defence of the proud Swiss people, and disprove Lime’s claim right now, by showing you a mind-boggling map of the country’s rail system.

Made by self-described hacker, trainspotter and map addict Vasile Coțovanu, it uses data from the federal railways organisation SSB to show the movement of trains across the country in real time. If you’re too impatient to watch the trains crawl across the map, you can speed the whole thing up. If you feel the need to follow a particular train, you can do that, too.

The map is not actually live, as such: it uses timetable data to show where trains are meant to be, so doesn’t show delays and so forth. But Swiss trains have such a reputation for punctuality that the joke is the locals set their watches to the trains – so we can be fairly sure what we’re seeing is spot on.

The map also, indirectly, shows both the physical and human geography of the country. You’d be hard pressed to find a more iconic duo than Switzerland and mountains: the country’s topography has allowed the small republic to keep out of Europe’s wars for centuries.

But as well as providing a natural barrier that would make Donald Trump go green with envy (what colour does green and orange make?), the mountains have been a huge obstacle for the engineers tasked with building the country’s rail system.

This map shows the rail network in its entirety: note the concentration of red to the north, representing the Swiss Plateau. Hemmed in to the north by the Jura Mountains and to the south by the mighty Alps, this stretch of relatively flat land was an obvious choice for settlers, and although it only covers 30 per cent of the country, two thirds of the total population lives there.

In the rest of the country, though, rail coverage really thins out. Tunnels and difficult spiral climbs are necessary for trains taking on the mountainous south.
Despite its difficulty, the route through the Alps along the Gotthard Pass has been an important trade route for centuries. It is the shortest route between the Po and Rhine Rivers, and control of it has been a key objective for the Swiss state.

Two years ago a new rail line opened along this north-south route, known as the Gotthard Base Tunnel (GBT). The tunnel can be seen in the more faded red, running from Erstfeld to Biasca:

This tunnel was built quite a bit after Harry Lime’s time: he had seen it, I doubt he would have been quite so rude about Switzerland. It’s the longest and deepest rail tunnel in the world running for 57km under the Alps. At its deepest point, the GBT is 2,450m deep. This incredible feat of engineering allows faster and more frequent journies through the mountains and onto Italy.

Here you can see the 19:09 for Como go through the tunnel:

The Alps aren’t just an obstruction, though: where railway lines have managed to wind their way through you can find some of the most beautiful train journeys in the world.

The Bernina Express is the sort of old school Alpine train where you imagine you could find James Bond in the bar carriage. It travels along two World Heritage railways, the Albula and the Bernina, which are among only a handful of rail lines whose importance has been recognised by UNESCO. Sweeping past glaciers and lakes, the train goes through 55 tunnels and across a mindboggling 196 viaducts and bridges.

Here’s the 13.48 to Tirano going through the eponymous Bernina Pass:

I was thinking of asking Vasile Coțovanu, the man behind the map, to try mapping out the UK rail system in a similar way. The problem is the difference between actual running times and those timetabled is so great that any map would be less of a practical tool than a work of utopian fiction.

Let’s leave these interactive maps to a country that can build a world class rail system in the middle of a mountain range. Harry Lime, eat your heart out. 


Images: Vasile Coțovanu.