The vote for Brexit has brought a renewed political focus on the ‘left-behind’ towns which most commentators agree drove the referendum outcome and will be instrumental in the next general election.
This is welcome, reflecting an increasing awareness of political and economic divides across the country.
Unfortunately, it has also been coupled with the idea that towns have been fallen behind because consecutive governments have prioritised cities instead – from the devolution agenda championed by former chancellor George Osborne, to decisions about investment. In other words, towns struggle because cities have done well, so we need to channel political attention and resources away from cities.
But this thinking is misplaced. First, it gives too much credit to government city-focused intervention: cities that are increasingly successful began their revival long before Whitehall rediscovered them.
Indeed, that success has had as much to do with the expansion of university education, the increase in EU immigration and the national economy’s shift from manufacturing to knowledge-led services – all disproportionately benefiting urban areas.
Second, it overlooks the deep-rooted economic links between cities and towns across the UK. As a recent Centre for Cities report shows, the prospects of both are inextricably linked.
For example, cities provide jobs and opportunities for people living in nearby towns, with one in five living outside cities commuting to work in one. That also highlights that people living in towns and rural areas are crucial for the success of our cities.
Moreover, the report shows that when city economies thrive, so do nearby town economies. Towns which are close to successful cities also do better in attracting high-skilled business investment and jobs, while those close to less successful cities have lower employment rates, and struggle to attract high-paying firms and jobs.
As such, for struggling and left-behind towns to prosper, we also need our cities to thrive. But too many of them do not – 52 out of 62 cities have productivity levels below the national average. The goal for policy-makers should be to raise prosperity in both towns and cities, rather than treat it as a zero-sum game.
To do that, we need a greater effort to improve skills levels in all places, which will be critical to improving their economic prospects.
Additionally, the government should be ambitious in the upcoming devolution framework, giving places of all sizes appropriate powers, resources and responsibilities to allow them to prosper. That means devolving more powers to the existing metro mayors, stepping up efforts to secure deals with other city regions, and setting out plans for devolution in smaller places.
This will be crucial in for the prospects of towns and cities across the country – and for the national economy – as we prepare to leave the EU.
Andrew Carter, chief executive, Centre for Cities