The co-founder of the Centre for Towns on the government’s promise of cash for towns.
Theresa May’s announcement of £1.6bn for our towns, accompanied by the recognition that they have not received the investment they need, appeared to be a positive development. Unfortunately, it is too little money to meet the battery of challenges our towns face, and doesn’t reflect the scale of the challenges faced by our towns.
This announcement has been decades in the making: our cities have received the grace and favour of government attention and investment for many decades now. The shift to a high-skilled service economy has pushed successive governments to use cities, and city-regions, as engines of economic growth.
We shouldn’t question the motives of the people making those decisions. They were largely made in good faith at the time. However, this approach has subsequently dominated government policy for well over two decades – a dogmatic approach which has marginalised many of our towns.
Successive chancellors will have heard a powerful city lobby telling them our city-regions can deliver what they want for the economy. The city lobby continues to seduce public policy makers whilst our towns are left to fend for themselves or, at best, grab the coat-tails of their nearest city. The result is we have knowingly created a system that gives the places with the most – cities – the structures and resources to lobby for even more from central government and leaves the rest – not cities! – with less and less. Nowhere is this felt more keenly than in our towns.
Not that all readers will believe that cities themselves are seeing the benefits of city-led economic growth. In recent times, the development of inclusive growth models for our cities has been a tacit recognition of gross inequalities within our cities.
But the World Economic Forum, OECD and World Bank all promote inclusive growth purely in relation to our cities. The fact that policy professionals and think-tanks are now designing what kind of growth they want in cities says a lot about a) how well our cities appear to be doing and b) how poorly the model of city-driven economic growth delivers for the poorest in those cities.
All of which means we need a fundamental re-evaluation of the geography of power and resources in this country. A city-driven model doesn’t deliver for the poorest within cities and marginalises towns across the rest of the country.
At the Centre For Towns we are certainly not anti-city. We ask for a balanced approach to investment, rather than one which disproportionately favours our cities over towns.
That is why we were so hopeful of this investment from Number 10. If this is a down payment on a new approach to investment, we of course welcome it. But if it’s an end in itself it fails on its own terms. People in towns and cities will be the poorer for it.
Ian Warren is the co-founder of the Centre for Towns.