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.

 
 
 
 

The Fire Brigades Union’s statement on Theresa May’s resignation is completely damning

Grenfell Tower. Image: Getty.

Just after 10 this morning, Theresa May announced that she would resign as Britain’s prime minister on 7 June. A mere half an hour later, a statement from Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire arrived in my inbox with a ping:

“The news that Theresa May will step down as Prime Minister leaves the country in limbo while the clock ticks down to the latest deadline of 31 October. While much is uncertain, one thing remains clear – a no deal is no option for architecture or the wider construction sector. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister must focus on taking the country forward with policies beyond Brexit that tackle the major challenges facing the country such as the housing crisis and climate change emergency.”

I was a bit baffled by this – why would the architecture profession try to get its thoughts into a political story? But then Merlin Fulcher of Architects Journal put me right:

Well you know construction is a larger contributor to GDP than financial services, and most of the work UK architects do is for export, and at least half of the largest practice (Foster + Partners) are EU, so there's a lot at stake

— Merlin Fulcher (@merlinfulcher) May 24, 2019

So, the thoughts of the RIBA president are an entirely legitimate thing to send to any construction sector-adjacent journalists who might be writing about today’s big news, and frankly I felt a little silly.

Someone else who should be feeling more than a little silly, though, is Theresa May herself. When listing her government’s achievements, such as they were, she included, setting up “the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower” – a fire in a West London public housing block in June 2017 – “to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, is having precisely none of this. Here’s his statement:

“Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.”

A total of 72 people died in the Grenfell fire. At time of writing, nobody has been prosecuted.

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

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