It’s time to get real about ‘ghost towns’
The end of the summer has centred on a furious debate about remote work, city centres, and whether employees are morally obliged to help the economy by returning to the office.
At the centre of this was the motif of the “ghost town” – first used by the CBI’s Carolyn Fairbairn in a Daily Mail article in late August, to describe the post-COVID hit to the London lunchtime economy. The phrase has subsequently become a shorthand for reductions in spending and footfall in city centres, thanks to home-working.
Our own research has identified hundreds of towns that have been facing a ghostly future for some time. But these are places a million miles from the prosperous urban hubs that are now on the brink according to the Mail and others.
‘Shrinking and ageing’ towns across the country, like Barrow-in-Furness, Cleethorpes and Billingham, face static or even declining populations, sluggish house prices and an ageing citizenry, as youngsters move away to find opportunities. Similar problems afflict ‘less connected’ towns and those with ‘uncertain industrial futures’ – and have done since long before the pandemic hit.
Taken together, the risks of “ghost town” status is all too real for many of these types of settlements – especially once you add in the economic hit of COVID-19.
The existence of such settlements draws into sharp relief the narrative at the centre of the recent national conversation. The potential “ghost towns” described in the Mail and elsewhere, for example, are all successful cities. London, Manchester and Oxford top the Mail’s list places ‘at risk’ of this fate, followed by Cardiff, Birmingham and Leeds.
These are, compared to the rest of Britain, places with strong centres of gravity, where anxieties prior to lockdown often related to overcrowding, unaffordable housing and prohibitive costs-of-living. The businesses which are likely to struggle there are those which, as the FT’s Sarah O’Connor puts it, are “calibrated [to] the pre-COVID era of pressure-cooker urban hubs.”
This is not to dismiss genuine worries among those working or running companies in major city centres. We must address the economic fallout from COVID-19 wherever it occurs. But London and Oxford are a long way from becoming “ghost towns”, even with a significant drop-off from their pre-COVID peak.
Of course, this is not necessarily a zero-sum game. A ‘new normal’ involving remote work will not automatically fix things in towns grappling with the existential challenges of the future. But there are opportunities attached to a fall in the reliance on big metropolises, when it comes to re-pivoting our economy and re-balancing our country.
Towns could, for example, find renewed purpose as places to settle and live – if the need to be in a major city lessens. Victoria Winckler, Director of Welsh think tank the Bevan Foundation, recently called for a ‘Work from Wales’ campaign.
Places already on the edge of big cities frequently express fears of ‘dormitory’ status, meanwhile. They are often looking for means of encouraging their commuter populations to spend more leisure time in their own town centres, rather than in the parts of central London or Manchester where they work.
These sorts of shifts will not happen by themselves. Government must actively shepherd, encourage and incentivise the changes.
The shocks of Brexit and COVID-19 have led to a great deal of rhetoric about ‘building back better’, ‘reset moments’, ‘levelling up’ or supporting those ‘left behind’. But discussions of the Square Mile being a “ghost town” obscure the actual choices ahead of the UK when it comes to our town and city centres, and show that in many quarters this debate is still missing the bigger picture.
Chris Clarke is a Policy Researcher at HOPE not hate