Small Towns, Big Future?

December 6, 2017

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by Dr Victoria Winckler, Director, Bevan Foundation

 

Towns are the unacknowledged lifeblood of Wales.  About four out of ten people in Wales lives in a small town, classed as one with between 2,000 and 25,000 people, and a further two in ten live in large towns, i.e. with those with a population of 25,000 to 100,000. Ask anyone where they are from and people from outside cities will typically mention their town rather than the local authority in which the town is situated: so Llanelli or Llanrwst rather than Carmarthenshire or Conwy.

Yet towns have had a remarkably low profile in public policy, both historically and today.  The decision to wind down Communities First marked the end of an era when ‘community’ dominated policy. Now, the emphasis is on ‘regions’.  In the last few months, with the support of Carnegie UK Trust, we’ve looked at why towns have received so little attention.

In terms of economic policy, there are two huge city regions in the south of Wales with deals already signed and sealed.  So massive are these city regions that they include two-thirds of the population of Wales! And with the rest of Wales concerned about missing out, similar regional arrangements are envisaged for mid- and north Wales. For skills and post-16 education policy, the emphasis is, again, on regions. Three learning and skills partnerships provide a framework for the provision of a wide range of 16+ opportunities, with learning providers merging into ever larger units at a pace too.   From being too big to be the focus of public policy, towns are now at risk of being too small to feature on the policy map.

The absence of towns from public policy is reflected in the absence of data about them. Many key measures of social, economic or environmental characteristics are available either for local authority areas – typically very much larger than towns – or for small areas, such as Lower Super Output Areas. The task of combining small area data to create data for a town is a herculean task, despite the Welsh Government’s ‘look-up’ tool. That’s why the development of a towns data tool for Wales, by the Carnegie UK Trust and the Welsh Government, is very welcome indeed. It is the first step towards understanding the nature of our towns today.

The challenge for Wales is much more than recognising the importance of towns and gathering and collating the data. The right policies need to be in place. And this is arguably the biggest challenge of all.

Wales’ towns are extraordinarily varied, ranging from former mining communities and steel towns, to traditional market towns, coastal towns and dormitory towns. They include Wales’ most deprived areas (such as Rhyl and Ebbw Vale) as well as its most prosperous (such as Monmouth and Cowbridge).  They include towns in some of the most rural parts of the UK – like Montgomery in Powys – as well as towns on the capital’s doorstep, like Penarth. One size very definitely does not fit all.

Our interest in the Bevan Foundation is in towns where there are deep-seated social and economic inequalities. Very often, the root cause of those inequalities is dramatic changes in local economic fortunes, notably the closure of a major employer and the inability of public bodies to replace the jobs lost. Those places very quickly become the by-word for all things undesirable.

As an organisation that is based in one of those towns, Merthyr Tydfil, we are all too aware of the damage that its negative portrayal in the media and, unfortunately, public policy can do. There is a fine line between recognising an area’s difficulties and removing all hope from people and a place. It was because of this that we argued last year for the Valleys Task Force to designate two or three ‘growth hubs’ based in the south Wales valleys, with one of them being Merthyr Tydfil. We were thrilled when the Welsh Government responded by designating a total of six ‘strategic hubs’ across the Cardiff City Region.

This is just the start, however. Simply designating more sites for industry, more land for housing and yet another retail park – welcome though they may be – is not enough to achieve the transformation that these towns so urgently need.

The framework developed in ‘turn-around towns’ is very helpful in this regard. It stresses how towns need to address the development of ‘soft’ infrastructure – changing the narratives, harnessing civic pride, releasing enterprise and innovation – at the same time as developing the hard infrastructure of bricks and mortar, tarmac and rails.

Crucially, the turn-around of Wales’ towns must involve prosperity reaching all people and all communities, not simply an increase in a headline figure.  So, embedded in the turn-around approach must be:

  • action to reduce poverty, including in-work poverty;
  • action to reduce gender inequality and ensure the inclusion of disabled people and those from ethnic minorities; and
  • action to support opportunity and social mobility.

Towns that turn-around without ensuring that everyone benefits will only be half-way there.