Healing the Brexit divide between cities and towns
Two and a half years on from the Brexit referendum, our country feels more divided than ever. The Government and Parliament are debating the Brexit deal. But too little time has been spent working out how to heal the divides or challenge the inequalities that underpinned the Brexit vote in the first place. Politics isn’t bringing people together, it is fracturing instead.
The divides aren’t just between people, they are between places. Cities were more likely to vote remain – the biggest cities voting 60% to remain.Towns, on the other hand, were more likely to vote leave – on average 55%. 22 of the top thirty Remain areas are cities. 27 of the top thirty Leave voting areas in the referendum are towns.
The gap in the Brexit vote between cities and towns is underpinned by a growing economic divide. Many towns across the country haven’t had a fair deal in recent years. In towns like ours in Yorkshire and across the country, we have seen investment and skilled jobs move into the cities, transport connections fail, town centres under pressure and public services withdrawn. Crucial decisions affecting our towns are too often being taken in cities far away so the promise of taking back control is an appealing one. Yet no matter what happens on Brexit itself, nothing is currently being done to tackle the frustration and widening gap facing towns, and the Conservative Government is making it worse. Labour has to build a strong plan to tackle the injustice and heal the divide.
Without action the urban economic divide will keep getting worse. Manufacturing and distribution jobs are disappearing from towns. Jobs in tech, services and culture are growing in cities. The number of jobs in English town constituencies has grown by just 5% in five years, compared with 11% in city constituencies. Overall, economic growth under the Tories has been only two-thirds the rate in towns as in cities.
Recent waves of technological change and globalisation have created amazing new opportunities that many cities have seized, however they have been much tougher on our towns. Big cities with their universities, diverse skills and sheer market size have proved best placed to seize new opportunities. However industrial towns have lost traditional industry through waves of automation and the trade shocks described by Liam Byrne. Seaside towns have lost their tourists as people find affordable holidays abroad. Market towns have lost their markets as shoppers move online or head to the cities and shopping centres instead. Big city centres still include new retail developments as well as quirky niche shops. But town centres are being hollowed out as shops, banks and post offices close, undermining people’s sense of community, identity and confidence. Future automation trends could make things worse.
But instead of responding to this widening opportunity gap between city and town, Conservative Government policies have made things worse. Ministers focus on cities and city regions, assuming wealth and opportunities will trickle down and trickle out. Instead of trying to shape the impact of technology or globalisation on communities, or helping towns respond, Whitehall has made it harder. Economic investment reinforces inequalities rather than narrowing them.Transport investment is concentrated in cities and particularly in London. The big infrastructure investment like Crossrail or HS2 is either within or between cities. Meanwhile miles of bus routes have been cut from our towns. Each wave of broadband and mobile communications upgrade starts with the cities giving their businesses the first opportunities, before spreading more gradually to towns.
At the same time towns have been harder hit by Tory austerity and the loss of public sector jobs. As public services shrink back to fewer, bigger centres to save money, many towns have lost services altogether - the A&E, the maternity unit, the police station, magistrates courts, solicitors practices and swimming pools. Too often big public services such as the NHS or the Court Service make decisions that are completely out of touch with towns like ours – focusing only on the quality of the service once someone finally makes it in through the city door, not on the hassle and barriers that patients, families, crime victims or witnesses from our towns might all face struggling to get to them. Nor do they consider the cumulative impact of austerity and different public service cuts on the places that depend on them. So town institutions are disappearing and so are the professional jobs within them.
I fear these deep divides are going to get worse whatever happens on Brexit unless we start standing up for our towns. Many of the ideas in other chapters on work, skills, public services and identity are important to our towns. But healing the divide requires changing the way we think about places too. Action is needed across the board but here are three areas where we could start.
First, we need a fundamental change of approach, away from trickle down and trickle out economics. The Government seems to think if you only support cities, everything will just trickle down and out to the towns, but it hasn’t worked. Cities will always be a vital source of growth and wealth generation across the regions, but Britain needs both our towns and our cities to prosper because the growing economic gap is bad for all of us.
Government needs a proper industrial strategy for towns. It needs to shape the impact of technology and globalisation so towns can benefit, and to empower towns to seize new opportunities and benefits rather than repeatedly losing out. That means giving much greater support and priority to investment in towns, as well as supporting local councils and combined authorities to develop clear strategic plans about towns’ economic purposeand connectivity. Instead of rolling out new broadband or 5G infrastructure in cities first, why not start in nearby towns? Instead of always using all the transport money on overruns for big city projects like HS2 or Crossrail, why not start by improving local trains and buses to connect towns? Towns need better education, retrainingand apprenticeship opportunities so young people aren’t all forced to move away to get on, and older workers can reskill.
Every town has a story, a unique combination of history, geography, skills and culture that can give it economic purpose or community pride, that can help it punch above its weight. But towns need strong, locally driven plans to make the most of their strengths and restore their sense of purposein a changing economy too.
Second, towns should get universal service guarantees to cover public services that townsneed and should expect – NHS services, buses, libraries, community centres, post offices, banking services, parks, leisure and sports facilities. These services support the local economy but even more importantly they make it possible for communitiesto gather and thrive.
And third, we need to give towns more power andmore respect. Devolution deals have concentrated on the cities, but there is still too little power or control in towns, and too little support for local government even though there are fantastic innovative ideas coming from local councils across the country. Key planning and investment decisions with huge local impact on towns are usually taken far, far away. Its time we did more to support local creativity and celebrate the pride people have in local culture too. Arts Council funding is more than four times higher on average in city constituencies than it is in town constituencies. That’s why the Labour Towns group of MPs is calling on the Government to establish a yearly Town of Culture award, to generate new investment, footfall and national recognition for the towns involved, and toempower communities to be creative and ambitious.
Most of all we should value our towns as the back bone of Britain. We should be proud of our towns – with strong communities, unique histories, local skills and industry.
Whatever the Brexit outcome, if we want the urban divide to heal rather than grow, then towns need renewed purpose and regeneration, including their fair share of investment and opportunities so they can flourish in the changing economy. I don’t believe the Conservatives have the values or the policies to ever heal this divide. Only Labour can. But it means the responsibility on Labour is even greater than ever to be able to reach out as a broad church into cities and towns, across the Remain and Leave divides, to pull people together and make our country fairer and stronger, true to the values that have always been at the heart of our movement.