Re-invigorating towns

January 13, 2020

Share this story

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

Carnegie UK Trust has been promoting wellbeing in the UK and Ireland for over one hundred years.
The results of a survey the Trust conducted with IPSOS Mori in 2018 reveal that two in five people live in towns, across the UK and Ireland. Despite this number of town dwellers, our analysis and research has found the voice of towns crowded out by louder city and rural interests. The Towns Fund and Towns Deals are a welcome indication of change and now is an opportune time for governments, Local Authority and towns leaders to consider how to support towns to flourish. This paper reflects on learning from ‘Flourishing Towns’ – the Trust’s work to understand and enable the re-invigoration of towns in the UK – and provides recommendations for towns’ regeneration.

Headlines tell us the British high street is in decline and many parts of the country feel ‘left behind’. In July 2019, the current Prime Minister used one of his first speeches in power to promise to ‘level up’ towns with their city neighbours. The government announced a £3.6 billion Town Fund for growing towns’ economies. 101 towns in England have been selected to develop a Town Investment Plan by mid-2020, to be delivered through a deal managed by a Towns Deal Board.
Carnegie UK Trust welcomes this interest and we want to work with others to ensure the investment is focused on developing local assets and stimulating community wellbeing. Community wellbeing is about us living well together, and towns are an important setting for this. The place where you live impacts on your wellbeing; and inequalities in social, democratic, environmental and economic domains of wellbeing can arise between places.
The Trust argues that UK policy has failed towns, because it hasn’t recognised the living standards and wellbeing differences between them and cities, or the uniqueness of towns. Towns have been grouped together, for example through a nod to local geographies. There are all party parliamentary groups on new towns, industrial areas, coastal communities; and towns also are clustered into market towns, commuter towns and university towns. These categories often reflect towns’ pasts, when they served more populous rural communities or had more manufacturing businesses. Yet we know, towns are not only defined by their past, and, as recent research from the Bennett Institute argues:
“policy makers need to consider multiple town categorisations, to get beneath the broad groupings that have become so dominant ..such as ‘university’, ‘coastal’, or ‘post-industrial’ towns”.
Despite the variation between towns and their circumstances, all are experiencing a period of significant change, not least through the impact of globalisation and growing global problems. Changes such as an ageing population; technological innovation; climate change; increasing social and physical inequalities and the changing nature of work.
These changes have local impacts. They are combined with continued austerity in public services, which means that local authorities have to deliver services differently. To support towns to manage these changes policy makers and funders need to understand towns better and use that knowledge to unlock local assets.

The Current Situation

High Street decline.
In 2011, The Portas Review found:
“How we shop as a nation has quite simply changed beyond recognition. Forever” (Portas, M., 2011. The Portas Review: An independent review into the future of our high streets).
The review made the point that the issues facing high streets are ‘complicated’, but a key driver of change is the decline of spending in the high street to less than half of all retail spending. Since then, the trend has continued downwards, with towns often in the news because of shop closures in the high street. In September 2019, newspapers featured yet another announcement of a ‘crisis on the high street’ (for example, in the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Times) in response to the increased rate of chain store closures.
The closure of high street stores has an impact beyond shop owners and town centre landscapes, as they are places where people talk and connect with one another. The Portas Review clearly made the point: those who see the high streets as purely a place to shop “need to think again”.

Social infrastructure declines
High streets’ loss of energy and attraction are of greater concern when viewed alongside an overall decline in social, or civic, infrastructure, such as libraries, community and leisure centres. Libraries have closed year on year for the last decade, with 127 public libraries being lost in 2017.
Cuts in local authorities’ transport budgets also affect towns across the UK as they often rely on buses, rather than trains, for internal and external connections. But the investment in buses has declined in the last decade, when 3,000 routes have been lost.
A loss of social infrastructure, places to meet, and transport negatively affects people’s connectivity –both within, and between, towns and cities. This has social and economic impacts. For example, where areas have a low job density people find it more difficult to travel to work, which hinders employment prospects. In 2019, Local Trust and OSCI created a new community-needs index based on cultural and social factors – civic assets, community engagement, physical and digital connectivity. They combined the community-needs index and the index of multiple deprivation and found the areas that ranked lowest in both had ‘higher rates of unemployment, ill health and child poverty than other deprived areas’. Some of these areas are housing estates on the periphery of cities, some are towns. They have lost services and social spaces at the same time as shops have closed. The analysis implied that the story of struggling high streets might be the tip of wider issues:
‘areas where shops and other businesses had withdrawn seemed to face bigger challenges‘.

Lack of attention to towns
Towns have appeared in UK policy as an adjunct to cities, with a reliance on the growth of cities filtering down to towns. This has not been the case, with towns often left out of the benefits of economic growth. For example, smaller towns in the North East of England have not had a ‘boost in their relative economic and demographic outcomes’ from the larger towns and cities near to them. Although this might be particularly true where the larger towns and cities’ traditional economies have declined or where their jobs remain inaccessible to towns’ dwellers, there is international evidence that agglomeration economies are not benefiting towns. Towns are more likely to prosper if policy makers consider them in their own right, focus on their assets and seek to build local, specialist economies.
Lack of attention to the circumstances of towns is to the extent that they “have been actively excluded”. People living in towns have felt this, and have responded at the ballot box. In the UK’s referendum to leave the European Union, geography mattered: with towns predominantly voting to leave, whereas cities voted to remain. Andres Rodrigues-Pose has argued convincingly that this was the “revenge of places that don’t matter”. Analysis by Carnegie UK Trust in 2018 found that it’s not European politicians and processes that have ignored towns, but rather UK jurisdictional and local governments that have not supported them. MacLennan and McCauley found:

“the broad settings for economic policies that have prevailed over the last four decades are now being rejected by places and people that have seen little improvement in real living standards as their older economic bases have contracted or seen public resources shrink as populations have grown”.

Unlocking the Potential of towns

To support towns to adapt to increasingly complex future challenges, we need to look to their assets and strengths.
Carnegie UK Trust argues we need to develop an Enabling State in the UK, where people, communities and local organisations are given more power and support to play a greater public role; for example through community organising, greater devolution of government to communities, community commissioning and deliberative mini-publics. Taking an Enabling State approach to towns’ regeneration will promote bottom-up, participatory ways of working. Three possible ways of doing this are outlined below.

Wellbeing as the purpose of government and local authorities
Policy focused on economic growth has not served towns well. We need a broader focus to tackle the complex problems of the future, such as a wellbeing framework. Wellbeing includes a focus on societal, democratic, environmental and economic domains. It prompts more joined-up planning: for example, encouraging review of a new infrastructural project to include an assessment of environment and social infrastructure consequences, as well as the economic impact.
People in towns have felt marginalised from decisions about their lives. The democratic focus included in a wellbeing framework will encourage mechanisms for people to have more say over local decisions that matter to them.

Collaboration not consultation
The Enabling State recognises the wealth of knowledge and potential of communities and their capacity for transformational change. There are examples in towns across the UK of this change happening where local people and communities are taking the lead. In our report that brings together stories of towns, Turnaround Towns UK, we found community catalysts (organisations and individuals) bringing people together through a variety of approaches to improve the look and feel of their town.
Our work with towns illustrates the power of different sectors working together: in Twin Towns project teams came together across sectors and new community leaders emerged. Collaborating together varies from low levels of engagement, such as the public sector consulting with communities, to higher levels of devolved leadership. The Enabling State challenges policy-makers to move to a higher level of collaboration, towards co-production, where public service agencies become facilitators and catalysts of change. But as a recent review of progress found there still are,
“Structural and cultural barriers .. in the way of a shift towards co-production of public services” (Enabling State: Where are we now? p22).
Tackling these barriers and increasing the capacity of governments at all level to work with local people is vital to enabling communities to play a stronger role in developing towns. Civic deals (cited in the Communities framework) and Towns Deals (in the Towns Fund) are potential opportunities for increasing community involvement, if the dial can switch from top down to bottom-up planning and implementation.

Giving communities more control over the high street.
Planning the high street of the future necessitates a strong understanding that they are more than places to shop, but rather part of our civic infrastructure.
It’s difficult to know who owns your high street: owners include property companies, investment trusts and speculators. A recent survey by a real estate intelligence company found almost a fifth of shops (by number), across 22 high streets, are owned by overseas investors. This disjointed ownership makes it difficult for town planners or communities to hold owners to account about the development or dereliction of their properties. An example is in Dumfries where the local development trust rejuvenating the high street sought to buy a disused property, but struggled to find who to buy it from, and how. More transparency and better publically available data on who owns the high street would bring the problem to the fore. It would allow local planners and communities to know who to engage with to change the high street.
The pattern of ownership means people with power in the high street often are more focused on shareholders’ interests above local interests. Shops owned by investors are less sustainable than high street spaces owned by the community: with community shops and pubs having survival rates of 94, and 100%, respectively. These factors have led to the social and public sectors becoming increasingly interested in the potential for communities to purchase parts of the high street. Power to Change has effectively argued this would be transformational for high streets, developing social infrastructure and keeping high street buildings occupied.

A substantial minority of the UK population live in towns. A range of people and organisations – from funders to community activists – are aware of the stories of towns and their role in promoting local wellbeing.
Now, with increasing recognition of the importance of towns within our social fabric, it is time to pool our learning and experience on the successful approaches for supporting towns to flourish.
There is no roadmap for the development of towns. Perhaps this is just as well considering the variation between towns. However, as local and national government grapples with how to ensure the attention on towns brings real local change, people are looking for guidance. The experience of Carnegie UK Trust, with partners, is that to give towns a chance to firmly face the future we need to focus on local solutions. The Enabling State sets out what this will entail and can act as a framework for encouraging carefully constructed devolution of powers and resources to communities across the UK.

Relevant Blogs

The time of the town

September 14, 2020

Read More

Time for Towns

August 7, 2019

Read More