Has economic policy focused too much on cities, to the detriment of the places where most British people actually live? Should we spend more time thinking about towns? These questions are what currently passes for a hot topic the urban wonkery community, and the debate has been playing out in tweets and party conference fringe meetings for some months now.
The Centre for Cities last week put out a report, Talk of the Town: The Economic Links Between Cities & Towns, giving its own take on this one. Its finding was that cities are important (no shock there), but also that it’s a bit of a false dichotomy:
...These findings illustrate two points. Firstly, the relationship that the city has with its surrounding towns is important for its own performance, as towns supply high-skilled workers. Secondly, cities play a significant role in supplying jobs – particularly high-skilled jobs – to the residents of nearby towns.
Or to put it another way: cities are not islands
The report includes a helpful map to illustrate this point. it shows the share of residents who are unemployed or in receipt of long-term benefits as of the last census, in 2011, in over 164 towns with daytime populations of between 30,000 and 135,000. It also shows, in outline, the 62 larger British Cities, plus their ‘hinterland’: a circle with the radius of the average distance a worker who lives outside commutes in. (The definition of cities used here actually varies slightly from the Centre’s normal approach, using output areas, rather than the larger Primary Urban Areas, to ensure that towns and cities don’t tread on each other’s toes; but that doesn’t matter for our purposes.)
Here’s the map:
Short version: shades of green means low unemployment, shades of purple means high unemployment. Image: Centre for Cities.
What to make of all this? The Centre’s write up notes that
...while recent commentary on the fates of towns has focused on struggling towns, a large number actually outperform the national average on employment outcomes... reflecting the geography of economic outcomes for cities, towns in the South, such as Winchester and Maidenhead, tend to be the strongest performers.
Colour me stunned. Those two towns are commutable to both London and the cities of the M4 corridor, which account for many of the UK’s best paid jobs. It’s hardly a surprise that they should be pretty affluent places themselves.
In fact, the report finds, there is a correlation between a town’s proximity to a city and its employment levels:
In 2011, towns located in the hinterlands of a city had a lower share of residents unemployed or on longterm benefits on average (10.6 per cent) than those which are in more isolated rural locations (12.1 per cent). This suggests that proximity to a city may impact a town’s economic outcomes, and highlights how important it is to understand the relationship between cities and towns when considering how and why the prosperity of towns vary.
Or to put it another way: a small town near a big city is less likely to be depressed than a small town in the middle of nowhere.
There is, inevitably, a but:
Being close to a city does not guarantee better outcomes for town residents – the poor outcomes of Hartlepool (near Middlesbrough) and Llanelli (near Swansea) are examples of this.
But this doesn’t really undermine the core thesis, that cities can help boost towns, because the key word there is ‘can’. For a city’s affluence to spillover to neighbouring communities, it will have to have some in the first place, and neither Middlesbrough or Swansea are exactly powerhouses. Just as it’s no shock that Maidenhead, a town between London and Reading, would do well, it’s equally unsurprising that one between Sunderland and Middlesbrough might struggle. That’s not to say it can’t thrive – nearby Durham, for example, seems to have lower unemployment than anywhere else in the north east. But if it does, it will be because of factors other than its location (in Durham’s case, I’m guessing, a top university and a spot of tourism).
At any rate: being close to a booming city seems a fairly good guarantee that a town will boom, too. If Middlesbrough and Swansea started attracting well-paid jobs, the odds are this would benefit Hartlepool and Llanelli, too.
The good news is the vast majority of significant British towns are in the orbit of a bigger city: by my count, there are fewer than 30 – less than a fifth – that aren’t.
The obvious conclusion, with apologies to the nice folks at the Centre for Towns, is that fixing Britain’s bigger cities will fix most British towns, too. A few places may be too far away to benefit – in North Wales, Lincolnshire, or Cumbria. And struggling seaside resorts, like those on the Kent or East Anglian coasts or, more bafflingly, Weston-super-Mare, seem to have their own issues.
But generally speaking, if we can fix our cities, we’ll have fixed most of our towns, too. That, to me, suggests it makes sense to focus policy on cities after all.