David Skelton is the author of ‘Little Platoons: How a revived One Nation can empower England’s forgotten towns and redraw the political map‘. He founded Renewal, dedicated to broadening Tory appeal.
There’s been an impressive urban renaissance in our great cities. The Baltic in Newcastle, the transformed stations in Manchester and Birmingham, Millennium Square in Leeds and the waterfront in Liverpool, are all testament to this. Sadly, this only tells half of the story. Travel only a few miles from these reborn city centres and there are too many examples of towns that continue to be “left behind”.
Walk only a few miles from the Baltic in “Newcastle-Gateshead” (a phrase that nobody other than marketing men use) and you’ll arrive in Gateshead town centre. As the local newspaper puts it: ‘You will see signs with letters missing, windows without glass and shutters pulled firmly down.’ In 2016, one fifth of the stores in Gateshead town centre were empty, with the Evening Chronicle saying that the town had gone from ‘Gateshead to Ghosthead’.
There are forgotten towns like this all over the country, often blighted by appalling transport links, poor digital infrastructure, a lack of skilled jobs, declining communal spaces and insufficient entrepreneurialism. They have all been more negatively impacted by deindustrialisation and the after effects of the banking crash. Mass immigration from EU accession countries changed the nature of some of these towns almost overnight.
The policy of successive governments has done little to make things better. A focus on linking big cities with London has left many towns exposed, and a fad for out of town shopping and business parks has hollowed out town centres. A myopic obsession with Higher Education meant that government actively encouraged all the talented young people to leave town when they turned 18. This has resulted in what some academics have described as ‘urban shrinkage’, where some towns face both a falling population and diminishing new business growth. It has also produced a deeply divided nation, where GDP per head in the City of London is almost 19 times that in County Durham.
It should have come as no surprise that these towns voted decisively for change in the Brexit referendum. Delivering Brexit is, of course, fundamental to maintaining democratic trust and delivering national renewal, but a first priority of post-Brexit Britain must be to turn these towns around.
It was heartening that the Prime Minister used his first major speech to address these issues. He argued that:
Towns with famous names, proud histories, fine civic buildings where unfortunately the stereotypical story of the last few decades has been long-term decline… Time and again they have voted for change, but for too long politicians have failed to deliver on what is needed.
As I set out in my new book, Little Platoons, we need a transformative agenda to renew long neglected towns:
Delivering world-class infrastructure
Without adequate infrastructure, parts of the UK are doomed to fall further behind. Proper investment in road, rail and digital links into town centres will provide the basis for a vibrant private sector.
Devolution and the creation of ‘prosperity hubs’
Power should be devolved to the local level, whether that be city, town or even neighbourhood. But devolution alone isn’t going to turn around towns that are well behind. Government should give special powers to elected mayors of the towns and conurbations that have the worst levels of deprivation. They should be declared as ‘priority prosperity hubs’ and provided with extra extra powers and resources, with a mandate to do whatever it takes to bring about economic regeneration.
Reviving town centres
The towns with the highest levels of deprivation should be able to charge the lowest level of business rates. Government should encourage community-based regeneration, with a promise to match a multiple of an amount raised locally for innovative regeneration projects. Town centres should be at the core of local economies, with a focus on jobs and businesses being located in the town centre rather than in distant business parks.
Reindustrialisation of forgotten towns
The UK’s productivity has suffered because our economy has deindustrialised more than any other major Western nation. We should explicitly aim for reindustrialisation of many towns. Measures should be taken to incentivise R & D investment and high value manufacturing. Centres for applied research should also be established in some of these towns.
A vocational education revolution
Government should invest heavily in creating world class vocational education, reversing a status quo, where the UK lags behind every other major European country. Towns should be empowered to create a “dual learning” system, where young people from the age of 14 will be able to continue their academic education, but also develop vocational skills in partnership with local employers. Vocational centres of excellence, in partnership with key employers, should also be established within our towns.
We should also move towards a higher minimum wage, lower taxes for workers and more employee share ownership. Such a transformative agenda would help change towns into well connected, high skill, high entrepreneurship locations.
It could also help to redraw the political map. Many towns that once felt an almost familial attachment to Labour have now abandoned a Party that has ignored and belittled them in favour of a metropolitan identity politics. Once staunchly Labour towns, such as Bishop Auckland and Stoke, now dominate the battleground of marginal seats.
The same towns that spearheaded the Brexit coalition could form the basis of an expanded Conservative coalition. Becoming the party associated with the positive transformation of towns could reshape British politics forever, making the Party the natural home for the urban working class in newly rising towns and, with it, recreating One Nation.