What can we tell from a first look at the government’s 101 Town Deals?
Last week the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) announced financial backing for communities in seven areas, as part of its new programme of ‘Town Deals’.
Barrow-in-Furness, Blackpool, Darlington, Peterborough, Norwich, Torquay and Warrington are the first places to have funding details publicised. They sit within a longer list of 101 settlements, compiled by MHCLG, which will be supported by the Towns Fund, as part of the ‘levelling up agenda’.
The fact that the list of the first seven places includes two cities poses interesting questions about the focus of the fund. The government attracted criticism in the past when it chose to launch its ‘Town of the Year’ competition in Wolverhampton – which has had city status for two decades. Meanwhile, the presence of less some deprived settlements (be they Worcester, Newark or Cheadle) has also drawn criticism in some quarters.
To try and understand more about how the list was developed, we have compared the government’s longlist of 101 places with Town Deals with the broader makeup of the 796 town communities in England (Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland not being included in the fund).
Our list of 796 towns is based on definitions from the Centre for Towns, with whom we partnered to produce our 2018 white paper, Fear, Hope and Loss. We profiled all of these towns in a more recent report, Understanding Resilience in Our Towns – creating an index of over 100 data points to assess the community resilience context for each place.
This research showed that places with significant economic deprivation are likely to be more hostile to migration and multiculturalism. It also showed that other factors can enflame or dampen potential tensions, including geographical connectedness, demographics, history and identity, pace of change, and the state of the public realm.
While our analysis was focused on resilience to change and difference – and on likely attitudes to migration and multiculturalism – the carry-over with the ‘levelling up’ agenda is clear. Frequently, ‘left behind’ places are also those that are least resilient.
The chart below shows a number of different characteristics a town might have, ranging from New Town status to its hosting a high number of asylum seekers. It reveals the percentage of towns on the government list which have these traits (in red), versus the percentage of towns overall (in yellow).
To begin with, the over-representation of ‘Red Wall’ seats on the list is interesting – in light of suggestions from some that the fund was targeting marginal constituencies. However, there is a chicken-and-egg element here as well – Red Wall seats also tending to be poorer in the first place, and thus more in need of Town Deal funding.
In terms of the elements that might indicate a need for ‘levelling up’, meanwhile, it is notable that the 101 towns on the government’s list are nearly three times as likely as towns overall to score highly for deprivation. They also score more highly when it comes to sluggish growth in house prices, the percentage with no passport, the prevalence of social problems like drug misuse, and the availability of arts opportunities.
Generally speaking, places with Town Deals are more likely to have socio-economic challenges than English towns as a whole. In this regard the government’s list represents a fairly well thought through approach to these aspects of ‘levelling up’.
However, there are other types of place which the list significantly under-represents. For instance, small towns – those with under 30,000 residents – are a conspicuous absence. The same goes for older and less diverse towns – with older places half as likely to be represented on the Town Deals list as among towns as a whole.
Meanwhile, places that are geographically cut off and those where the populations are shrinking are no more likely than average to feature in the government’s list. And there is a notable over-representation, among the 101 places chosen, of small cities and county towns – settlements which, our research finds, are usually more confident, resilient and connected to begin with, thanks, in part, to higher status and prestige in the eyes of others.
Rather than being glaring omissions, these things highlight the tricky question of what the ‘towns challenge’ actually is – and of what initiatives like the MHCLG Towns Fund are trying to address. Are the 101 towns in question the poorest or the worst hit by decline? Or are they supposed to be, in some sense, a representative cross-section of English towns as a whole?
The focus of the fund is on places that ‘do not have the right conditions to develop and sustain strong local economies’ – which is quite a specific criteria. Generally speaking, solutions to a challenge like this are likely to be quite different in small, non-diverse post-industrial settlements to those in diverse New Towns on the edge of big cities. The truth is that not all towns are deprived and not all deprived places are ‘left behind’. ‘Levelling up’ can take many forms.
These are initial observations, and we will continue to follow this strand of government work in future weeks, looking in detail at the 101 Towns chosen and at the Towns Fund in general.