There was some interesting polling analysis carried out for Centre for Towns recently. We are familiar with regional breakdowns of support for political parties. But in this exercise, YouGov was asked to crunch the numbers for villages, towns, and cities. The Conservatives continue to be the dominant force in villages and small towns. By contrast, even with their current dire ratings, Labour would still have a big lead in the cities. December 12th could deliver a huge Conservative landslide, but Labour would still win every seat in Liverpool, Manchester, and Newcastle.

While the Conservatives are further ahead in the villages and Labour’s lead has fallen in the cities, the contention is that it is the towns where the shift in opinion will be of the greatest electoral impact. Ian Warren says:

“At the Centre For Towns we also categorise places according to their characteristics. We use six main types of towns based on those characteristics: Ex-industrial towns; University towns; Market towns; New towns; Commuter towns; and Coastal towns. Ex-industrial towns included here are important election target towns like Kirkby- and Sutton-in-Ashfield, Barnsley, Bolton, Bury, Burnley, Crewe, Doncaster, Dudley, Hartlepool, Heywood, Mansfield, Redcar, Rotherham, Walsall, West Bromwich and towns across the south Wales valleys. Coastal towns include Barrow-in-Furness, Blackpool, Workington, Cleethorpes, Grimsby, Morecambe, Southport, Rhyl and Llandudno. University towns includes places like Canterbury, Cambridge, Chester, Huddersfield, Lancaster, Loughborough, Poole and Preston.”

In 2017 “Labour performed very well in university towns and ex-industrial towns…, whilst the Conservatives did very well in coastal towns, commuter towns, market towns and new towns.” The polling suggests that has changed:

“Labour now trail the Conservatives in every place type. Perhaps remarkably, the Conservatives now hold five-point leads over Labour in both ex-industrial towns and university towns whilst extending their leads in the other place types. The Lib Dems are now in second place in commuter towns and market towns.”

In order to get a decent sample, YouGov added together several of their polls. This makes it a bit out of date with it going back to the middle of October. Since then there has been some shift from the Lib Dems to Labour. Warren concludes:

“We are also pleased at how the media are visiting many of our towns; another small example that the towns agenda is cutting through. The Conservatives would be foolish to believe the leads they currently hold are secure, whilst Labour have some time to regain their position in our towns. All of which should mean a higher profile for people in our towns; and that can only be a good thing.”

What are the Conservatives doing to earn their support? In July, the Prime Minister announced “a £3.6 billion Towns Fund supporting an initial 100 towns. So that they will get the improved transport and improved broadband connectivity that they need.” The first hundred “town deals” have been published. Labour has pointed out that not all are among the most deprived. The claim is that it is skewed to help Tory MPs in marginal seats. The counter-argument would be that  the money should not just be handed over without some clear prospect of it being spent effectively. The local authorities that lost out should put in a better bid for the next round.

What more can be done?

Transport improvements are obviously important. Preston has done well from having a direct motorway link with Manchester and Birmingham. HS1 has helped Ramsgate and Margate.

Provision for higher education is also key. Cornwall has a problem with a lack of universities. Bright, young ambitious people leave to go off to college, then don’t always come back. Huddersfield succeeds partly because it has a university.
There is a University of Brighton campus in Hastings and St Leonards. Derby University is good news for Buxton. Jesse Norman wants a Hereford Institute of Technology.

Planning policy can be very damaging. Housing development is needed to thrive. But it must be beautiful. Souless, ugly new buildings are not places where people would choose to settled down and start a family.

For Conservatives though, the route to prosperity will ultimately rely on free enterprise rather than subsidies and state intervention. A switch towards more self-employed people, with businesses run from home is particularly positive for towns. So is the flexibility of employees working from home a few days a week. If you live in Clacton, for example, and work in London every day that’s a bit much – one or two days a week not so bad. Therefore Clacton is reviving. Brighton and Hove is doing very well. As technology improves this will be easier.

That old Thatcherite idea of Enterprise Zones could be dusted off. When Corby lost its steel works in 1980 it was all looking pretty grim. But the brownfield land was used for new businesses and new private housing. Being an Enterprise Zone helped.

One final thought. The Conservatives should not get too sucked into seeing towns and cities as competing lobby groups. One of the most reliable indicators of a town succeeding is to be near a successful city. Hebden Bridge is a nice place to live but is it crucial that its residents can commute to Leeds or Manchester. Good news for Leeds and Manchester is good news for Hebden Bridge.

We will rise or fall together. Bribes, gimmicks and managerial meddling are not required. It is about getting the fundamentals right. With strong economic growth our villages, towns and cities can all thrive.