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.

 
 
 
 

Does it matter that TfL are renaming White Hart Lane station Tottenham Hotspur?

New White Hart Lane. Image: Getty.

Pretend for a moment that you’re travelling in the London of 1932. You’re taking the Piccadilly Line northbound and alight at Gillespie Road station. The name should be obvious: it’s inscribed in bespoke brown tiling on the platform.

But that 31 October, following an intense campaign by the eponymous football club, the London County Council changed the station’s name to Arsenal (Highbury Hill). The area’s growing association with the name “Arsenal” ended in a lengthy negotiation that changed maps, signs and train tickets alike. Football had acquired so much power that it changed the name of not just a Tube station but an entire suburb, even before the era of Wenger or the Emirates.

Now the spectre of name changes is on the horizon once again. As Tottenham Hotspur FC inches closer to completing its new stadium, the club is clamouring for a renamed Overground station. Despite the fact the new stadium is located on almost exactly the same site as the old just off White Hart Lane, and fans have long been calling the scaffolding-laden mess “New White Hart Lane”, the club’s executive director is adamant that the station’s existing name cannot stand. White Hart Lane station, on the Overground line leaving Liverpool Street, is set to be renamed “Tottenham Hotspur”, at a cost to the club of £14.7m.

Little has been made of the fact that this peculiar PR kerfuffle is tied to Spurs’ failure to convince Nike to sponsor the venue. Some sources have even claimed that the sponsorship is yet to be finalised because it is somehow contingent on the renaming of the Overground station; beyond the ridiculous Johnson-era vanity project that was the Emirates Air Line, it seems improbable that TfL will allow any more corporate-flavoured information pollution. There will be no “Nike Stadium” station on the way to Enfield, much as there is no “Emirates” on the way to Cockfosters, especially if public consultation gets a look in.

The scene of the crime. Image: TfL.

But there’s a problem with the new name, all the same. “White Hart Lane” already means “football stadium”, in the same way Loftus Road or Stamford Bridge do. Changing it to “Tottenham Hotspur” risks opening the floodgates to an “O2 North Greenwich” or a “Virgin Euston” at some point in future, names as banal as there are dystopian. The Greater London Authority has promised to spend the £14.7m fee on community programmes in the local area – but that’s not much money to set the precedent that a private company can mess about with the Tube map.


What’s more, as CityMetric has often observed, there are plenty of station names across London that could do with a tidy up. Picking one that’s perfect already and asking for £14.7m to change it is adding insult to injury. How much would it cost a community group if they asked to change the name of Goodge Street to Fitzrovia? Why does a vast corporate entity backed by international sponsors and thousands of season ticket holders get to set the standard?

Back in Arsenal’s day, changing names on the Tube must have been easy; changes could be accommodated gradually without bothering the every day traveller. But in our world of online information, maps and apps, name changes are rather more complicated.

The question is – if TfL can bring itself to balefully accept this particular proposition, why can’t it accept ours? Why sort out a single non-issue on the Tube Map when you can catch lots of real ones in one go? A day’s pandemonium might just be a price worth paying to fix the Bethnal Greens problem once and for all.