Britain’s towns have suffered decades of neglect. They deserve more than this government is offering

Bolton: a town, in what is now Greater Manchester. Image: Ian Roberts/Wikimedia Commons.

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.


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.