Boris Johnson has promised to invest in Britain’s towns. He should give them greater powers, too

Rochdale, a town, in 2011. Image: Getty.

The authors are the founders of the Centre for Towns think tank.

The PM’s announcement on Saturday of £3.6bn funding for one hundred towns – out of the Shared Prosperity Fund created to replace EU structural funds – echoed themes that we at the Centre of Towns have been banging on about since we were founded in Autumn 2017: liveability, connectivity, culture and power. We are long overdue the government waking up to the profound changes that silently have taken place in many towns – perhaps most notably in former industrial areas and coastal towns, but also in towns that have not yet found a place in the UK’s 21st century economy.

The challenges that towns face are a product of fundamental economic processes – replicated across many advanced industrial economies. Deindustrialisation, a belief in cities as the only engines of growth, the expansion of higher education, an ageing population and immigration have all contributed to a fundamental fracturing in the demography of towns and cities in Britain. As we have shown, major cities are becoming younger, more ethnically diverse, more educated and better able to exploit opportunities afforded them by creative, knowledge and digital sectors – even when substantial parts of their population are in precarious work.

At the same time the populations of towns are aging, less diverse, and possess lower levels of skills and education. Coastal and post-industrial towns in particular suffer from high rates of deprivation and health problems, as well as lower levels of social mobility. Even within cities where agglomeration has been claimed to increase productivity, we see the same pockets of deprivation, undermining the claim that such a model should be replicated elsewhere.   

Until the side-effects of that agglomeration-based model is addressed, the same dynamics of decline will persist in peripheral towns that have become disconnected from the core arteries of power and economic growth. Splashing the cash won’t address the severe imbalance of the UK’s highly centralised system.

People need to be given agency and resources to deliver for their own communities, on a long-term basis; a need which the Prime Minister appears to recognise. What works for one town may not work for another. We need local people and local leaders to be given the tools and resources to take back control.

We have repeatedly called for power to be handed back to our towns. Trains have ground to a halt in the North whilst our bus network has been sharply cut since 2010. The loss of greenbelt has erased the identity of small towns and villages; health and social care services are increasingly concentrated in younger cities instead of the ageing towns that need them. Arts and culture, where the Arts Council now spends £8 in Islington for every £1 across the whole former coalfield areas of England; immigration decisions are so often imposed rather than negotiated, fuelling anger and providing fertile ground for the far right.

In all of these policy areas, empowering and trusting people produces a smarter, more humane and more sustainable response. We are pleased the Prime Minister has now put towns on the agenda but will hold his feet to the fire to make sure these words are matched by deeds, and we are ready to work constructively on behalf of our towns.

While others have been talking, we have been doing – often working in partnership with other organisations who get it. Our mission is to provide an evidence base that helps move political debate forward and inform policy-making.

In our launch briefing we revealed the stark demographic gap that had emerged between towns and cities since the 1980s – as towns have aged while cities grew younger. We also highlighted the higher levels of political disaffection felt in towns, where people feel that politicians don’t care about them or their area. If not addressed, that sense of grievance may prove toxic for our politics and society.

In further analysis of an ageing population, we showed how the widening gap in population projections will present major challenges in public policy – requiring us to adapt and revitalise our housing stock, transport infrastructure, healthcare services, and educational provision according to the distinct demands of particular places. We also have shown how access to health services differs wildly for the residents of towns and cities. Working with the Royal Institute of British Architects we have identified the pressure on housing due to an ageing population – and how towns are at the sharp end of the coming crisis.

In a report with Hope Not Hate we mapped out some of the deep divides between places in terms of values and identities. Concern or hostility towards immigration was highest in the former industrial towns and isolated coastal communities that have experienced sustained economic decline. Major cities and university towns were much more welcoming and embracing of diversity.

Our analysis with Ernst & Young showed that foreign direct investment (FDI) had increased four-fold in core cities over the last two decades, whereas investment in towns had flat-lined or fallen over the same period. Investors choose to invest in places with world-leading infrastructure and access to a skilled workforce. We have shown the wide gap in broadband speed between towns and cities and the clustering of jobs in the digital sector in London and the South East. Many of our towns are simply unable to compete on that basis.

All of this work, and more to come, has been with the intention of highlighting the challenges our towns face. Not only that, we feel a responsibility to give people in towns a voice in our national debate. We operate on a shoestring budget out of a shed in Bolton, whilst money floods into the think tanks and lobbying outfits of Westminster serving the interests of the few.

It comes as no surprise to us that our towns have been ignored or side-lined in our national debate. The Prime Minister’s speech in Manchester, and Labour’s own policies on towns, encourages us that change is coming. It can’t come quick enough for the people in our towns.

Lisa Nandy is the Labour MP for Wigan. Dr Will Jennings is a professor of political science at the University of Southampton. Ian Warren is a co-founder of the Centre for Towns and the director of Election Data. Together, they founded the Centre for Towns.

You can hear Lisa talk about this agenda on our podcast Skylines here.


London’s rail and tube map is out of control

Aaaaaargh. Image: Getty.

The geographical limits of London’s official rail maps have always been slightly arbitrary. Far-flung commuter towns like Amersham, Chesham and Epping are all on there, because they have tube stations. Meanwhile, places like Esher or Walton-on-Thames – much closer to the city proper, inside the M25, and a contiguous part of the built up area – aren’t, because they fall outside the Greater London and aren’t served by Transport for London (TfL) services. This is pretty aggravating, but we are where we are.

But then a few years ago, TfL decided to show more non-London services on its combined Tube & Rail Map. It started with a few stations slightly outside the city limits, but where you could you use your Oyster card. Then said card started being accepted at Gatwick Airport station – and so, since how to get to a major airport is a fairly useful piece of information to impart to passengers, TfL’s cartographers added that line too, even though it meant including stations bloody miles away.

And now the latest version seems to have cast all logic to the wind. Look at this:

Oh, no. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

The logic for including the line to Reading is that it’s now served by TfL Rail, a route which will be part of the Elizabeth Line/Crossrail, when they eventually, finally happen. But you can tell something’s gone wrong here from the fact that showing the route, to a town which is well known for being directly west of London, requires an awkward right-angle which makes it look like the line turns north, presumably because otherwise there’d be no way of showing it on the map.

What’s more, this means that a station 36 miles from central London gets to be on the map, while Esher – barely a third of that distance out – doesn’t. Nor does Windsor & Eton Central, because it’s served by a branchline from Slough rather than TfL Rail trains, even though as a fairly major tourist destination it’d probably be the sort of place that at least some users of this map might want to know how to get to.

There’s more. Luton Airport Parkway is now on the map, presumably on the basis that Gatwick is. But that station doesn’t accept Oyster cards yet, so you get this:

Gah. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

There’s a line, incidentally, between Watford Junction and St Albans Abbey, which is just down the road from St Albans City. Is that line shown on the map? No it is not.

Also not shown on the map: either Luton itself, just one stop up the line from Luton Airport Parkway, or Stansted Airport, even though it’s an airport and not much further out than places which are on the map. Somewhere that is, however, is Welwyn Garden City, which doesn’t accept Oyster, isn’t served by TfL trains and also – this feels important – isn’t an airport.

And meanwhile a large chunk of Surrey suburbia inside the M25 isn’t shown, even though it must have a greater claim to be a part of London’s rail network than bloody Reading.

The result of all these decisions is that the map covers an entirely baffling area whose shape makes no sense whatsoever. Here’s an extremely rough map:

Just, what? Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

I mean that’s just ridiculous isn’t it.

While we’re at it: the latest version shows the piers from which you can get boats on the Thames. Except for when it doesn’t because they’re not near a station – for example, Greenland Pier, just across the Thames to the west of the Isle of Dogs, shown here with CityMetric’s usual artistic flair.

Spot the missing pier. You can’t, because it’s missing. Image: TfL/CityMetric.

I’m sure there must be a logic to all of this. It’s just that I fear the logic is “what makes life easier for the TfL cartography team” rather than “what is actually valuable information for London’s rail passengers”.

And don’t even get me started on this monstrosity.

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