Hopeful Towns: Foreword
Since my election to Parliament on 7 May 2015 it is no exaggeration to say that each and every day I have felt an enormous sense of honour and pride to represent my Aberavon constituency in Westminster.
Aberavon is home of Port Talbot, a genuinely welcoming seaside town in South Wales with a proud industrial, steelmaking history, surrounded by villages and valleys that add so much character to our local area. Our steelworks remain front-and-centre to the town’s economy and identity – despite employing just 4,000 workers compared to 18,000 at its 1960s peak – but we have plenty more that we are also proud of; from our creative community groups, to our state-of-the-art Swansea Bay campus, to the incredible contribution key workers have made in tackling Covid-19.
I know many other Members of Parliament that feel similar level of pride in the towns that they represent. Yet I know that they also share my grave concerns that for too long too many British towns have been made to compete with one hand tied behind their backs.
Both accident and design have played their part. For a generation politicians have stood by as globalisation has driven de-industrialisation and the erosion of high skilled jobs while the internet age has gutted high streets. For a decade right-wing governments have actively foisted austerity on areas that can handle it least when investment was required. Meanwhile ivory tower thinkers have championed city-centric growth models which have inevitably resulted in the agglomeration of resources, wealth and opportunity around our major cities.
Towns have been largely forgotten as engines for growth. As a result the energy and talent found in local people has either been under-utilised or has left for university, unlikely to return due to a lack of career opportunities. Brain drain and ageing populations are the inevitable result, as is a level of cynicism about the benefits of fast-paced economic and cultural change.
This is not to say that all towns fit the popular ‘left-behind’ narrative, or that it is appropriate to associate towns residents with ‘backward’ social views. For instance, Port Talbot continues to flourish and our community is welcoming of new faces, whoever you are, wherever you are from.
Indeed, this new report by HOPE not hate Charitable Trust reminds us of the diverse nature of UK towns and the different types of challenges they face. The authors identify 14 ‘clusters’ of challenging economic characteristics faced by English and Welsh towns – from ‘shrinking and ageing’ to ‘uncertain industrial futures’ to ‘cross-cutting deprivation’ – alongside a wide range of attitudes towards multiculturalism and immigration.
My experiences have taught me that a prevalent force in town communities tends to be Communitarianism – which means that there is a strong sense of place-based identity (national and local), a strong desire for community cohesion, and a determination that people should play by the rules, work hard and contribute. This ‘politics of belonging’ can sometimes spill over into racism or xenophobia – but this usually occurs when mainstream politicians have ceded the conversation to the far right, by either disengaging from communitarian values, or at times generalising about – or actively goading – small town communities.
Scratch under the surface and there is actually enormous potential for mainstream, centre-left politicians to harness place-based identity for progressive ends, by developing an inclusive national politics which articulates the language of family, community, good work and fairness. This must of course be married with the empowerment of local experts to meet the unique challenges of each local area. Get this right and there is an exciting opportunity to shape a compelling and unifying story about the type of society we want to shape post-pandemic, and to emphasise how – with the right support from government – towns can be the forefront of our economic recovery.
HOPE not hate Charitable Trust’s new recommendations and wider work help point us towards a principled pathway forward that can help foster confidence, resilience, optimism and inclusive identities in towns across Britain. Politicians of all stripes should be making notes. As we saw at the 2019 general election, our towns are at the forefront of our politics once more.
Stephen Kinnock is the MP for Aberavon