Could Brexit be a catalyst for change for towns?

September 19, 2018

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by Pippa Coutts, Policy and Development Manager, Carnegie UK Trust

With Brexit around the corner, initial policy proposals for replacing EU funding to the UK (such as the European Regional Development Fund and the European Social Fund) are beginning to surface. For example, in July, James Brokenshire outlined plans for the UK Shared Prosperity Fund in a  Written Ministerial Statement[1] and, this week, the Scottish Government committed to support farm and rural businesses and protect the environment (The Scottish Government’s Programme for Government 2018-19). These new proposals and funding mechanism are an opportunities for doing things differently. Not least, as Locality argued earlier this year, the change that Brexit brings gives us a chance to act to reduce inequalities between communities.

This is particularly important for the future of towns. We have found in a recent study (conducted by Ipsos Mori on our behalf) two in five of the UK population live in towns, yet the UK public policy has persistently overlooked towns. The report Carnegie UK Trust has released today New Powers, New Deals: Remaking British Towns after Brexit highlights the link between this neglect and the Brexit vote, with towns more likely to vote leave than cities. The leave vote was arguably a “vote of discontent” strongly felt by towns that either have not flourished over decades or have recently grown so fast that their services like schools, health or transport failed to keep up with what people want and need.

The UK’s economy may have grown over recent decades, but a growing economy has not equally benefited all communities. According to OECD, the UK is the fifth most unequal society in terms of income in Europe. The Commission on the Economic Justice makes the point that the inequality of wealth is even starker and this is played out through differential impacts on people’s health across the UK. Poverty and lack of wealth isn’t distributed evenly across the UK: there is an association with where you live, which means people across the UK have had very different experiences of the last decade. Remaking British Towns after Brexit reiterates, there are parts of the UK which (despite national economic growth) have seen a decline in their opportunities, social and economic outcomes over decades. This is not a new but it is worsening and economic geography was important factor in who voted to leave.

The causes of discontent have not yet been resolved and the report makes the point that it is likely that the disaffected towns, which voted to leave, will feel the worst effects of Brexit: in trade, tourism, farming and the public sector.

Regardless of whether we have a ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ Brexit the question is what can we do to make the most of the change for these parts of UK that experience the worst effects of our income and wealth inequality.

Firstly, if these towns and regions have been ‘forgotten’, ‘left-behind’, treated as ‘places that don’t matter’, policy makers, governments and leaders need to remember they do matter. As Carnegie UK Trust previously stated, it is the Time for Towns.

To develop new economic arrangements which bring prosperity for towns after Brexit we need to better understand their stories, their economies and the likely local impacts of Brexit. Decisions that affect the economies and wellbeing of towns should be brought closer to towns. There are still questions around what this might look like. For example, the Commission on Economic Justice has called for four economic authorities or ‘executives’ for the regions of England.  Perhaps towns could collaborate in regions or zones with similar livelihoods to develop deals for towns, learning from City Deals.  However economic decision-making is recast, this is an opportunity to support the social sector and communities to become involved in developing strategies for their towns. It is an opportunity for communities to develop visions of the future for their towns, and to plan, with the support of governments at all levels, how to achieve them.