The need for a 'Towns Moment'
The past few years have seen a renewed focus on towns. Wider patterns of change have been expressed through recent political upheavals, the 2016 EU referendum and the collapse of Labour’s ‘Red Wall’ in the 2019 general election. The geography of a growing economic and values divide within the country has drawn lines on the map, between smaller settlements and cosmopolitan hubs; between diverse core cities and university towns and their neighbouring towns, coastal and ex-industrial communities.
This socio-economic sea-change is reflected in attitudes to migration and race, where local tensions are likely to occur, and where the populist radical right is able to take hold. In each case it is now in smaller places, away from the centres of big cities, where the risk is most acute – with a sense of loss and a suspicion of difference often going hand-in-hand. Resentments and frustrations that people see in their own lives are easily exploited into blame, scapegoating and anger at a changing world.
Addressing the challenges faced by towns is central to neutering the far right – and to tackling at source the factors which enflame hostility to migration. As the country looks to rebuild following the coronavirus pandemic, there is an urgent need for a ‘towns moment’.
Policies and strategies need to focus as much on towns’ resilience in the face of change and difference as on cohesion or integration. Hence, rather than describing how good or bad relations are between white and non-white communities, resilience in this report describes how well- equipped a place is to establish good relations in the first place. By this we mean:
the extent to which a place is confident, open and optimistic;
how much the community there is able to adapt to change or absorb shocks;
how much agency residents feel, and how much trust there is likely to be for decision- makers, outsiders and each other;
how positive residents are about racial and cultural difference;
how able the community is to withstand abrupt demographic shifts or one-off flashpoints, without these events escalating;
and, correspondingly, how predisposed a place is to welcome migrants, refugees or other new groups.
THE 'TOWNS CHALLENGE'
When it comes to resilience, evidence suggests a specific ‘towns challenge’. Towns are significantly less liberal about migration and multiculturalism than big cities. But they are also less liberal than very small places, like villages. So, this is not merely a case of the physical size of a settlement.
Nor can differences be explained by deprivation alone, though this plays a significant role, or by demographics and the size of the non-white population. In each case there are enough outliers when it comes to attitudes – enough ‘affluent but hostile’ or ‘non-diverse but liberal’ places – to suggest that looking at the issue through a single lens will restrict a genuine understanding.
The only solution is a genuinely place-based approach, which examines the myriad social, economic, cultural and geographical factors at play. This offers a way of crafting policies which recognise the unique circumstances each town is operating in – while also grasping the wider shared challenges that different groups of towns face, and thus offering the capacity to scale up policy interventions.
Towns are not a proxy for ‘left behind’. Each has a different geography, population, and history, and not all are feeling the effects of deindustrialisation or geographical isolation.
Our answer to this has been the creation of a towns index, an extensive inventory of the UK’s towns bringing together well over 100 data variables for all 862 towns across England and Wales. We have created 14 ‘clusters’, each representing a set of resilience challenges faced by each town, from coastal challenges and cross-cutting deprivation to rapid change and competition for resources.
14 CHALLENGES TO RESILIENCE
What makes one town more confident, welcoming and optimistic than the next? And how can national and local policies level the playing field? This report looks at 14 factors which could create particular challenges for towns, undermining resilience and increasing hostility to immigration.
This creates 14 ‘clusters’ of towns which are subject to these characteristics, and would benefit from similar solutions.
Very few of the 14 characteristics are wholly negative for a town, and many come with positive side-effects. But our hypothesis is that the factors each, in different ways, increase the likelihood of a town being less resilient to change, and indicate higher degrees of hostility towards immigration and diversity.
It is important to point out that each of our 862 towns can fall into more than one of the clusters, and most do. If a place is subject to several at the same time then it makes resilience to change and difference much harder to forge – creating the ‘dry brushwood’ for adverse community outcomes. The more clusters a town falls into, the more acute this hostility is likely to be.
Regional differences in terms of how many clusters a town falls into are very acute here – as are differences in the purpose or history of a place. Towns in Wales and the North East are more likely to fulfil the ‘shrinking and ageing’ trait for instance. Places in the North West and the West Midlands are more likely to have experienced ‘migration in the community’. New Towns are more likely to have ‘fewer cultural assets’ and are less likely to fall into the ‘less connected’ grouping.
While the full impact of Covid-19 remains hard to predict, towns are likely to bear the brunt of an economic downfall, though different clusters will respond in different ways. Nonetheless, our analysis shows that it is now more important than ever that we address the towns challenge.
Doing this will require a balance of national and local policy solutions. Among some clusters the answers will need to lean more towards the former (with ‘less connected’ places, for instance). Among others the most successful interventions are more likely to come locally (e.g. in towns with ‘rapid change’).
STEPPING UP TO THE 'TOWNS CHALLENGE'
To properly address the towns challenge, we believe there are five strategic areas in which to focus:
• Adopting a more joined-up approach, so that towns with similar challenges can more easily collaborate with other places facing the same obstacles – identifying localised policies that work and sharing best practice. There needs to be a broad set of working groups and idea-sharing networks to enable resilience in towns – in the same way that there often is between big cities
• Establishing towns as the primary unit, and looking at the challenge in a town-by- town, ‘place-based’ way. This does not mean ignoring district councils or parliamentary constituencies. But it means decision-makers looking at towns as individual places, and seeking to understand the very specific circumstances of each one.
• Deploying targeted policies at the national level, in recognition of the quite distinct issues faced in different places. Teasing the various ‘towns challenges’ apart and looking at them in isolation will allow policy- makers to focus on the individual factors which, taken together, can both embed and undermine resilience.
• Sharing expertise and best practice, as part of a ‘preventative’ approach. This means recognising that resilience issues are latent within many non-diverse communities, and seeking to embed policies which address this. What is the correct community policy in an area with a lack of heritage assets, for example, or in one that is hard to get to? Much more is needed to establish a clear sense of best practice when tackling each issue locally.
• Promoting an ‘every town counts’ ethos, which calls out pejorative language about towns. This is primarily a question about language and way of thinking. But it reflects an urgent need for a new conversation about towns, which emphasises that each place has inherent value. To dismiss a place is to dismiss its people.
This report has aimed to look, in isolation, at what the different challenges are for resilience across English and Welsh towns. We do not have all the answers when it comes to what the solutions are, but we want to start a conversation to get there.
Our next step is to begin the creation of a Towns Leadership Network. The primary focus for this network will be to:
• Reach out to decision-makers in all of the places within each cluster, so as to develop a group of towns committed to addressing each of the 14 challenges identified.
• Build up a bank of experts and thought- leaders across the 14 different clusters. These groups and individuals can work with us as ad hoc specialist partners, helping to develop best practice for the respective challenges.
• Share insights with national policy-makers, so as to encourage targeted policies.