Ian Warren is a data analyst and political consultant. Will Jennings (pictured) is Professor of Political Science at Public Policy at the University of Southampton. They are co-founders of the Centre for Towns.
Towns will decide who enters the door of Number 10, Downing Street on Friday 13th December. Going into this election, around two-thirds of the top 100 marginal seats are ‘town’ constituencies. On current trends we are likely to find most of the closest contests will take place in our towns on election day. This is because Labour continues to pile up large majorities in major cities across England and Wales, whilst the Conservatives dominate in rural and semi-rural communities. What remains are dozens of marginal constituencies in small and medium-sized towns, and which are often highly competitive from election to election.
At the Centre For Towns, we believe the electoral importance of our towns can be leveraged in a positive way to draw specific policy commitments from all political parties. In recent months both Labour and the Conservatives have spoken about the needs of people in towns through policies on devolution, high street regeneration, broadband, and (our particular favourite at the Centre for Towns) buses. We have welcomed the Government’s Stronger Towns Fund and Future High Street interventions but also recognise the Labour Party’s commitments to coastal and post-industrial towns; types of town which face perhaps the most acute challenges of all of the UK’s towns.
On current projections, the Conservatives may find themselves representing coastal towns like Grimsby, Workington, Barrow and Rhyl on December 13th. They could also be representing post-industrial towns in Nottinghamshire, the North East and South Yorkshire. Should Labour manage to hold on to seats like Bolsover, Bassetlaw, Rother Valley, Rotherham and Hartlepool, it will have done so by the skin of its teeth on current polling. Either way, the two main parties will need to confront the desperate needs of those places and deliver both short- and long-term solutions.
Recognising those challenges and identifying the towns with the most pressing needs is only the first step. We require a deeper analysis and understanding of challenges faced by towns than that which, for example, informed the Future High Street fund (welcome though that was). At the Centre For Towns we have detailed how an ageing population has markedly changed the composition of towns across Britain (as shown in the figure below). Places do not age at the same rate everywhere. Our towns have steadily aged over the past 30 years as more and more people live longer and younger generations move away, whilst our cities have grown younger as they have attracted large numbers of young people for work or study.
An ageing population, combined with the Conservatives holding a 40-point lead over Labour amongst older voters, has meant many towns are more friendly to the Conservatives than they were a decade ago. The table below (with data on demographics generated from the Centre for Towns data tool) reports information of the population of some key marginal towns over the last three decades, specifically their increase in the number of over-65s and decrease in those aged between 18 and 24. This reveals a stark pattern. These ex-industrial and coastal towns have aged markedly, while the number of young people has declined, and this trend is projected to continue into the middle of the century. For such areas, these profound demographic shifts will require a response from all political parties.
An ageing population diminishes the spending power of a town, often pushing its high street into a spiral of decline as it increasingly caters to discount retail while flagship retailers shut down. It also means larger numbers of older people who enjoy free bus travel and fewer working-age commuters paying full fare. Bus companies close unprofitable routes as a result. The growing number of old people living in towns means shortages of social care provision are felt acutely. Housing needs in older towns are different. So is transport planning and the skills base. The list goes on.
These present fundamental challenges for a government of any colour. What is it about coastal and ex-industrial towns, for example, which has seen a fall in the proportion of 16- to 24-year-olds? What can be done to ensure our young people see them as attractive places to make a home and get on in life? We want our young people to fulfil their ambitions wherever that may be, but is it healthy that so many don’t believe their home town offers the sorts of economic or cultural opportunities which make superstar cities so attractive? So, whilst we welcome short term support for high streets, for example, our public policy will need to confront much deeper concerns about the future viability of our towns.
At the Centre For Towns we want politicians from all parties to recognise these challenges and address them with long-term planning that transcends party politics. Crucially, we have consistently asked that our towns’ greatest asset, their people, are given the power and resources they need to tackle some of these challenges themselves. Devolution is still a patchy settlement in England. City-regions are the devolved geography of choice, but vast tracts of land are excluded from city-regions. Indeed, even within city-regions, towns are too often treated as dormitory units rather than places with their own identity and distinct contribution to make. We are hopeful that the party manifestos will commit to hyper-devolution of the kind which empowers people in towns to turn their areas around, giving them a clear sense of agency.
This belief in the power of people in communities should appeal equally to both the Conservatives and Labour. In the coming election, the pivotal importance of our towns to the result should help concentrate their minds. Our hope is that after 12th December the focus moves to long-term planning and devolution of real power and resource to towns themselves. After all, isn’t this what they meant when the public voted to ‘take back control’ in June 2016?