A version of this blog originally appeared in the Municipal Journal.
The 2019 General Election has catapulted towns, especially those in the so-called Red Wall of former Labour strongholds, to the forefront of the national conversation. Some of what is being said is interesting, and some of the work that has been done (including much before the election) is good. Unfortunately though, a lot of the analysis is rather superficial. There are a few different strains of thought that seem wrong-headed, united by the fact they miss the role of social capital in restoring some verve to these places.
One strand seems to treat the problem as if no one has ever thought about it before. The reality is there is a long history of efforts to help revive towns whose economic reasons for existence have drifted away. I have been involved in some including the Heseltine Garden Festivals of the late 1980s to the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) and Coalfield Communities of the Labour years. The story is long and mostly unsuccessful. Ignoring the past may mean we are doomed to make the same mistakes over and over.
Others think that the towns have suffered because of emphasis on cities, many of whom have seen a renaissance since the tough times of the mid-80s. But the success of cities is an opportunity not a threat. This perception of unfairness to towns is perhaps what has led to places like Preston trying to retain more of the value from jobs and spend generated locally. But I worry this ‘social’ policy is a sticking plaster at best, and a turn to protectionism that in the end will be prosperity and quality destroying at worst.
Finally, some optimists think we can bring back the fishing, steel and coal or heavy manufacturing jobs in a way that will transform the prospects for the towns that lost them. I’ll be charitable and say I’m sceptical about this.
Many of the issues that arise in our less well-off towns are about the lack of good jobs and spending power in the area. That is hard to put right – certainly in any time scale that people would notice. Perhaps the only ‘quick-fix’ is direct inward investment and it is doubtful that will play such a big role after our leaving the EU.
But perhaps the reason this problem is so hard is that jobs and spending are not the be all and end all. Work by Local Trust shows that after housing costs are taken into account household incomes in ‘left behind’ towns are not clearly lower than in other towns with similar deprivation.
What is often missed out of these debates is the importance of civic pride both in the type of work people are doing and via their local social infrastructure and civil society. The Local Trust work shows that towns with less social infrastructure, a less active community and less connectivity do worse relative to other similarly deprived towns. They create a rich network of relationships and give people a sense of pride and achievement in their daily lives and are also key to building a fair and strong economy.
Social infrastructure comes in many forms. It can be about public space and the public realm—from libraries, to community centres, parks and town squares; and also about private spaces that help bind the community together—pubs, the post office, the high street and so on.
And somewhere between the two is the rich tapestry of charities and civil society organisation existing in an area. Worryingly, as a new NPC paper Where are England’s charities? shows, more deprived areas generally have fewer charities than better off ones. Funding that might help—from Government and from charitable foundations and philanthropy—is not finding its way to these places to help change that, let alone in a long term, sustained way.
It’s understandable that a lot of the discussion about ‘levelling up’ towns has been about physical infrastructure; indeed it is sorely lacking in some places. But the lesson of the past is that if we are to avoid spending a great deal of money with little long-term return, the social side must be taken into account. This going to require local and national government to get to grips with the social sector that is out there already, and work to build it up where it is lacking. It’s a new(ish) frontier, but then so are many of the constituencies this Government won and has to manage in this Parliament.