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25 August 2020

There’s no such thing as a “left behind“ town

The idea that Britain's smaller communities are all disadvantaged in the same way is politically convenient – but it doesn't work. 

By Anoosh Chakelian

The lazy narrative of “left behind” towns was a journalistic and political cliché long before the 2016 EU referendum result. Politicians were wringing their hands about “forgotten England”, the “metropolitan liberal elite” and “rugby league towns and lower-league football cities” in 2013, when Ukip was on the rise and Labour’s electorate was already disintegrating.

There is no common set of factors that defines all English and Welsh towns perceived as struggling to reconcile with modern Britain. For all the noise about “levelling up” the country’s towns, there is no such thing as a typical town, and there is no one way to be “left behind”.

Nevertheless, the flood of reports and initiatives seeking to improve Britain’s towns since 2016 rarely acknowledge their variety. These efforts include the flawed formula of the government’s “Towns Fund”, which has identified relatively affluent towns for investment meant to develop stronger local economies. Tory marginals receive a prominent showing in the list of selected Towns Fund places, but the main flaw is its narrow view of what improves a town: productivity, skills and income.

A new report by the anti-extremism campaign group, Hope Not Hate, takes a more nuanced approach. As part of its “Hopeful Towns” project, launched this week, the report uses more than 100 data sets to suggest which of the 862 English and Welsh towns are more vulnerable to the politics of division and extremism.

Rather than looking at the blunt economic factors that may suggest a town’s fate, the report identifies 14 “challenges to resilience” that prevent communities from adapting to change and create hostility towards migration.

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These challenges include some indicators clearly linked to the economy, such as the “visible decline” of an area, from the loss of pubs and shops to the conditions of streets and buildings (which it finds in Accrington, Abersychan, Halifax and Swinton in Greater Manchester), and “competition for resources” such as jobs and housing (which it found in Ashford, Luton, Walsall and Smethwick).

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But other challenges encompass certain cultural and demographic indicators, which correspond to a town’s openness towards change. These include the “traditional demographics” of places such as Ilfracombe, Immingham, Sudbury and Morecambe, which have older, whiter populations, as well as areas where a “strong national identity” leads locals to identify more as English or Welsh than as British (as was found in Wisbech, Harwich, Pontefract and Skegness).

A lack of “heritage assets” in a town is also seen as a “challenge” – towns that have a football club and an above-average number of pubs are shown to be more likely to be less “resilient” than similar towns which also have a medieval history or city status.

While Hope Not Hate’s report focuses on vulnerability to intolerance, it is useful in its acknowledgement of the “distinct issues in different places” faced by British towns. Some are growing, and changing rapidly; others are shrinking and ageing. Both circumstances present the potential for social division. “There are actually fairly distinct challenges between a place where a growing population is creating ‘competition for resources’ and a ‘shrinking and ageing’ town experiencing economic decline. Different policies are needed in these two types of community,” write its authors.

And while other reports focus on the quest for “cohesion”, this report measures instead the potential for towns to withstand division.

To recognise the complexity of the challenges faced by Britain’s towns is to accept that a different policy is needed. For example, the “rapid change” identified by Hope Not Hate in Salford, Dartford, Slough and Oldbury, caused by gentrification, economic growth and migration, is very different from the “less connected” Caister-on-Sea, Goole, Cannock and Devizes, which suffer from geographical remoteness.

The policy challenges for each of these places vary widely. Salford et al may need community interventions to help foster new connections, whereas the priority for Caister-on-Sea is better transport infrastructure.

Many of the towns highlighted in this report missed out on the investment offered by the Towns Fund because they did not fit the policy’s narrower criteria.   

“Gaining a broader understanding of the welfare of a place, taking into account its natural assets and levels of social capital, and the kinds of health outcomes associated with it” would be a better strategy, as Ben Goodair of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at Cambridge University told me last month.

For example, Thurnscoe in South Yorkshire has the lowest average healthy life expectancy for both female and male populations – roughly 14 years shorter than the average for all towns in England. Ilfracombe in Devon reports the third highest rate of hospitalisations for intentional self-harm of any town in England. Both missed out on the Towns Fund.

The irony of Britain’s “left behind” discourse is that it lumps every town together – and in doing so, leaves many of them behind.