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Putting towns in the centre

Exploring the political divides between towns and cities

Published: 9 June 2021

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You might not realise it, but whether you live in a city, a town or a village can have a huge bearing on your political outlook. It’s a growing divide that became stark following the 2016 EU Referendum and the 2017 General Election. It’s a divide that a thinktank co-founded by a Southampton professor is thrusting under the spotlight.

British politics began to undergo major change in the mid-2010s. Labour started to struggle in its former strongholds but performed better in big cities, while the Conservatives made gains in smaller towns and rural areas.

Understanding these changes and the strong influence of place on politics has been a focus for Will Jennings, Professor of Political Science and Public Policy, and Gerry Stoker, Professor of Governance, for the past seven years.

Will said: “Gerry and I were interested in what was happening in both declining areas and major cities. We worked to understand these political divides and the feeling that different parts of the country were heading in different directions. Then the EU Referendum showed a very clear, big divide between major towns and cities. British political geography had changed and our research linked this to socio-economic change – cities are getting younger and towns are getting older, with a greater share of older white working class people.”

Lisa Nandy, MP for Wigan, picked up the narrative of ‘Two Englands’, highlighting the gap between towns and cities. She, along with Will and data analyst and political consultant Ian Warren, formed the Centre for Towns thinktank in 2017. 

Launching the Centre for Towns

The thinktank was established to focus on the impact of political divides on British towns, to identify social issues and to ask questions about why politics tends to focus on major cities as markers of growth.

“There is the implicit assumption that the Government’s economic model has been focused on cities,” said Will.

Since 2017, the Centre for Towns team has produced reports identifying issues for towns including COVID-19, broadband connectivity, the public’s attitudes towards the environment, and access to healthcare services.

A cultural recovery 
The creative, cultural and heritage industries play a crucial role in towns’ economies. More often than not, a community is built around the local pubs and theatres. So, what happens if these disappear?

A new AHRC-funded scoping project, led by the Southampton Institute for Arts and Humanities and working closely with Centre for Towns, is investigating this question – a question that has become more critical due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the cultural and creative industries. 

The project, bringing together researchers from humanities with social scientists, is focusing on how the £3.6 billion ‘Towns Fund’ uses culture and heritage as levers for economic regeneration. It explores the processes and decision-making behind the Towns Fund and examines how they have been received by local communities in four case studies: Bournemouth, Darlington, Hereford and Southend.  
The research aims to understand how the connections between culture and regeneration are understood in our towns and to inform future research priorities for UK Research and Innovation. 

Professor Nicky Marsh, Associate Dean for Research and Enterprise in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, is leading the project. She said: “We’re really pleased to be able to work with Will and the Centre for Towns on this project. The ‘levelling up’ project is high on the political agenda right now and we’re hoping that our work with a range of local communities and cultural stakeholders will contribute new insights into what towns need and how researchers from the arts and humanities can work with them to achieve it.” 

The work we have done so far highlights the different experiences and contexts faced by people in towns and cities. Where we live massively influences our social mobility and economic opportunity.

Will Jennings - Professor of Political Science and Public Policy

Reporting on the divide

So far, the Centre for Towns’ reports have addressed major issues that are contributing to the growing chasm between towns and cities.

The COVID and our Towns report, published in April 2020, identified the UK towns most at risk of short and long-term economic impact due to the pandemic. Coastal and ex-industrial towns were identified as especially vulnerable, due to their high proportion of businesses that were forced to shut down, such as accommodation, hospitality venues and the entertainment industry.

“When COVID hit it became apparent that places with certain sorts of economic mix would be especially badly hit, if you assumed that particular sorts of industries would be less able to continue due to COVID,” said Will. “COVID brought home the geographical limitations, because we are all stuck in our homes and in our neighbourhoods. Economically, the pandemic will not impact the country evenly.”

The thinktank conducted a survey last summer that revealed broad public consensus across the UK on the subject of the environment. The result of the survey is the Public Opinion on the Environment in Towns and Cities report.

Will outlined: “The survey and the report highlight that, although we have all this talk of cultural wars and political divides, actually the UK is incredibly unified on the issue of the environment – it’s important to people personally, and there is a huge amount of support for pro-environmental measures. The only area of disagreement is around transport – people in towns and smaller rural areas rely on their cars, while people in cities are much more able to use public transport.” 

Centre for Towns also produces an annual report with Ernst & Young (EY) on foreign direct investment in towns and cities. “There has been a huge gap over the last 25 years between London and the rest,” said Will. “The EY survey asks investors what they want from an area, which is infrastructure, connectivity, a skilled workforce, and housing for that workforce.

“The survey is also useful for posing the question about levelling up – what is it we need to do to allow places to grow economically?”

Looking ahead

‘Levelling up’ is a topic of priority this year for Centre for Towns. Will said: “Levelling up is, in some way, a revisiting of a traditional set of political debates around regional inequality, which is good – but isn’t fully addressing the reasons for the huge gap between towns and cities, or the huge gap between London and the rest. Levelling up needs to attend to the fact that many peripheral areas have experienced decline over many decades, so how are we going to help these places turn a new page?”

The dynamics of this have shifted substantially over the past 12 months, due to the huge growth in working from home, which, if it remains, allows more people to live outside major cities.

At the heart of the thinktank’s work is its mission to keep the social and economic challenges facing the UK’s towns in the spotlight. Will concluded: “We want Centre for Towns to remind people of what the fundamental issues raised by our country’s social and economic geography are, rather than letting electoral politics dictate the agenda on the places that matter.”

Read more research stories in Re:action, the University’s research and enterprise magazine. 

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