Many of Britain’s towns are confident, welcoming and optimistic places. They have rich histories and strong identities. But big changes have put many communities under strain. Our previous research has shown how feelings of loss and decline give hatred a foothold in some of Britain's strongest and proudest communities.
The aim of the State of Towns project is to understand what makes a town resilient in the face of change and tolerant in the face of difference.
We want to help places across England and Wales to address the range of challenges which this throws up. This will involve providing support at a local level, as well as seeking to influence national policy.
Ultimately, this is a proactive approach to community cohesion. We want to address root causes, so as to stop divisive narratives from taking hold. And we want to promote policies which champion the value of towns. We believe that every town matters.
We are producing research to better understand how demographic and economic changes are affecting the social fabric of our towns, to identify what needs to change to build stronger communities.
We are working with local stakeholders in pilot communities, to understand up close what the issues there are, and to establish what works in addressing them.
We are building a Towns Leadership Network across England and Wales, to share ideas, resources and best practice and connect those facing similar problems to find better solutions
We are working with experts and practitioners to push for positive policy change at the national level, to increase the visibility of the ‘towns challenge’ and to address the structural challenges at play.
HOPE not hate was established on the premise that when people are given a choice between hope and hate, they choose hope. The far right take root where hope is lost. They exploit fears and frustrations, stirring up division.
Our fight against the far right has often seen this at the ballot box – such as with the British National Party in 2000s. We observed the same patterns emerge ten years later, with figures like Stephen Yaxley-Lennon deliberately seeking out deprived northern council estates.
Each time these figures have emerged, hate has lost out to hope, with the decline of the electoral far right in the UK, and dwindling street movements. But the anger and disaffection which these groups both exploited and catalysed has not disappeared, and neither have the underlying problems.
Immigration and multiculturalism have become a focus for grievances felt in many communities. But there are deeper feelings of resentment, to a distant political establishment and stark economic decline.
Our 2018 report, Fear, Hope and Loss, mapped attitudes in England and Wales. It starkly laid out how a feeling of loss combined with a lack of opportunities was creating pockets of hostility in post-industrial and coastal towns.
In the National Conversation , meanwhile, we found that immigration was seen as a national issue, passed through a local lens. Neighbourhood pressures or points of tension could often spill over into anti-migrant sentiment.
Sometimes these were directly related to immigration, such as neighbourhoods overwhelmed by large numbers of houses of multiple occupancy for a rapidly growing population of migrant workers. But often they occurred in places with little history of diversity, and were not about migration at all. Instead they reflected broader resentments – about housing, healthcare, or employment.
This context is by no means unique to the UK. Across the world, we have seen the rise of populist politicians exploiting genuine suffering brought about by decades of uneven economic growth and political disillusionment. We need to not just respond to the manifestations of resentment, but treat the causes.
Many of these issues span cities and towns, and do not always automatically translate into hostility towards immigration and support for the far right. Towns do not exist in isolation from cities.
Moreover, no two towns are the same – they are not proxy for ‘left behind’ areas. Each has a different geography, population, and history, and not all are feeling the effects of deindustrialisation or geographical isolation.
At the same time, there are clear differences between towns and cities. Wealth, infrastructure and industry, as well as cultural investment, continue to be concentrated in core cities. The populations of towns are getting older, as younger graduates leave for cities to find work. Towns are, on the whole, less diverse places with less history of migration, so people are less likely to have meaningful contact with someone from a different background to themselves.
The political impacts of this are beginning to show. Both the 2017 and 2019 general elections saw a number of seats change hands. City seats that had long been held by the Conservatives such as Putney and Canterbury were taken from the Conservatives by Labour, while the biggest change in the 2019 general election saw ‘red wall’ seats, many of which had been in Labour’s hands since heir creation, suddenly turned blue.
Hence, towns are an issue that crosses party lines; the Conservatives’ stronger towns fund and efforts to ‘level up’ have taken root alongside the establishment of the Labour Towns network and the efforts of Lisa Nandy.
While this towns agenda has so far had more of an economic focus, issues like good public transport, decent and secure jobs and good housing all have a big social impact. These are cohesion issues too. Getting these issues right means resentments are less likely to form in the first place. It is not that towns are ‘racist places’, it is that the most cohesive communities are often those that are most resilient in other ways.
Integration cannot just be focused on the efforts of migrant and minority communities, but is about everyone. This means creating places that are confident, optimistic and welcoming, by ensuring that people feel in control of their own lives. Our work campaigning against the far right has consistently shown that, for people to have faith in others, they need to have hope for themselves.
HOPE not hate believes in a dual strategy for combatting extreme and hateful politics. We challenge the politics and organisations that spread division and hate – whilst also building the capacity of communities and of society as a whole, to resist their messages.
The State of Hate report and the wider project aims to find what makes a town confident, optimistic and welcoming to new groups – and to help put the mechanisms in place to make every town hopeful.
There is already a lot of hope to build on, and we’ll be working with stakeholders to put this into action. But there are also things that need to change at a regional and national level, so we’ll be working to push for policy changes here too.