Sorry, Theresa May: The best way to create Stronger Towns is to invest in our cities

Rotherham. Image: Getty.

Yesterday’s news was dominated by the expected announcement of the Stronger Towns Fund and the apparent pork barrel politics of it. Whether that is the case or not, there are now decisions to be made about how this £1.6bn should be spent.

There is much to be welcomed about this fund. As the Centre for Cities has written elsewhere, the great irony of the Brexit vote is that the alarm call that it sounded that people in many parts of the country were not happy with the economic opportunity available to them has been completely ignored since the referendum. And so, belatedly attempting to answer this alarm call is welcome – although it’s a common misconception that all towns voted to leave, something the government appears to acknowledge with the skew in the funding to the North and Midlands.

The fund should have its main focus on skills.  More specifically, giving the whole £1.6bn to the better provision and take-up of further education would be a real win. It’s amazing that politicians continue to call for the scrapping of university fees while saying nothing about the underfunding of further education.

But which form of education is someone with no or few formal qualifications living in a ‘left behind’ town most likely to use? The 51 per cent of people in Peterlee (near Sunderland) that haven’t even got five passes at GCSE, or the 55 per cent in Clacton-on-Sea (in Essex) are unlikely to benefit from the scrapping of fees.

That won’t happen, of course. Instead at least a portion of the money will go on attempting to boost jobs and productivity in these areas, as the minister repeated a number of times in his radio appearance yesterday morning. And this is where the fund will likely run into trouble.

The desire to promise jobs and wage increases in towns is completely understandable – but it is much more difficult to deliver.

The economic structure of a town, proximity to a city and cost of commercial space. Image: Centre for Cities.

Our Talk of the Town report gives two insights on this, which are drawn from the chart of town performance above.

Firstly, with the exception of Yeovil, no town that isn’t within commutable distance of a city has been successful at attracting in high-skilled jobs.


Secondly, being close to a city is no guarantee of town success. In fact, those towns that are close to struggling cities tend to perform no better than those that are more isolated.

This suggests, somewhat counterintuitively, that the employment outcomes for people in towns are reliant on the performance of their nearest city. And it is the underperformance of these neighbouring cities that explain at least in part of the struggles of some towns.

So what does this mean for the fund? The goal of it should be to improve the employment outcomes of residents of towns, irrespective of where they work. Beyond skills, if it is to have an impact, it should look at improving transport links to the nearest city.

This, of course, will have little impact if the city itself is struggling. And this is why, despite the current interest in towns, the main plank of any domestic policy in a post-Brexit world must be about improving the performance of struggling cities, particularly in the North. This won’t just bring benefits to the people who live in these cities themselves, or to the national economy as a whole. It’ll improve the employment outcomes for people living in the surrounding towns too.

The fundamental question that any fund will need to answer – be it the National Productivity Fund, the Stronger Towns Fund or the Shared Prosperity Fund – is: what is the nature of the problem that it is attempting to solve? If the problem is one of inclusion, then it will need to be targeted on the people and places that are currently excluded. If it’s about economic growth, then it needs to note that not everywhere can or should be expected to play the same role in the economy.

The underperformance of the North as a whole is largely down to the poor performance of its cities. And so if we are to see a country that works for everyone addressing this underperformance needs to be agenda item number one.

Paul Swinney is head of policy & research at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

 
 
 
 

The Fire Brigades Union’s statement on Theresa May’s resignation is completely damning

Grenfell Tower. Image: Getty.

Just after 10 this morning, Theresa May announced that she would resign as Britain’s prime minister on 7 June. A mere half an hour later, a statement from Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire arrived in my inbox with a ping:

“The news that Theresa May will step down as Prime Minister leaves the country in limbo while the clock ticks down to the latest deadline of 31 October. While much is uncertain, one thing remains clear – a no deal is no option for architecture or the wider construction sector. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister must focus on taking the country forward with policies beyond Brexit that tackle the major challenges facing the country such as the housing crisis and climate change emergency.”

I was a bit baffled by this – why would the architecture profession try to get its thoughts into a political story? But then Merlin Fulcher of Architects Journal put me right:

Well you know construction is a larger contributor to GDP than financial services, and most of the work UK architects do is for export, and at least half of the largest practice (Foster + Partners) are EU, so there's a lot at stake

— Merlin Fulcher (@merlinfulcher) May 24, 2019

So, the thoughts of the RIBA president are an entirely legitimate thing to send to any construction sector-adjacent journalists who might be writing about today’s big news, and frankly I felt a little silly.

Someone else who should be feeling more than a little silly, though, is Theresa May herself. When listing her government’s achievements, such as they were, she included, setting up “the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower” – a fire in a West London public housing block in June 2017 – “to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, is having precisely none of this. Here’s his statement:

“Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.”

A total of 72 people died in the Grenfell fire. At time of writing, nobody has been prosecuted.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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