The time of the town

September 14, 2020

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by Lauren Pennycook, Senior Policy and Development Officer, Carnegie UK Trust

‘Return to work is too late to save centre stores, warn retailers‘. ‘Coronavirus: Working from home damaging economy, Raab warns‘. ‘Commons Treasury Committee cast doubt on a return to city centres soon‘. Three different headlines in three different publications on three different days, but one clear message – in the recovery, the city is the public policy priority.

The prominence of the city over the suburb, small town, or rural settlement in UK public policy is not new. But do cities, in fact, have the central place in our lives that governments assume? Or is it only now, when millions of us are working from home, becoming clear that given the opportunity, we would prefer to spend our money where we choose to spend our time?

That is not to dismiss concerns about the loss of jobs, economic activity, and opportunities for social connection that come with a fall in footfall in city centres. But the lazy equation of economic success almost exclusively with the city is misleading. In London, the epitome of agglomeration economics, spending power during the pandemic shifted from the city centre to the suburbs, and then soared. For example, by mid-July, restaurant transactions were 17% higher than their January levels in Southall, and apparel purchases were up 10% in East Ham. Across the UK and Ireland, district and neighbourhood retail were rediscovered, as, perhaps more than ever in living memory, life became truly local. But is the fact that a global pandemic is being met with a local opportunity to invest in our communities – in the local entrepreneurs, the family businesses, in the friend that has just returned from furlough – really less meaningful, less important to the recovery, less worthy of headline news than the dip in success of the city centre?

Two in five of us across the UK live in a town, but towns pack a far weaker punch in public policy than they do in demography. While recent government interventions to support the sustainability of towns are welcome, the deficit-based rhetoric which surrounds them is disappointing, and perpetuates the policy hierarchy. Cities versus towns policy, and the resources which come with it, should not be a zero-sum game. Pitting different demographics against each other in the recovery lacks nuance, foresight, and above all, understanding of our places.

Towns are home to many of the 9,000 community businesses across England; to many of the 593 community assets in Scotland; to the greatest British High Street in Wales. To overlook key features like these is to misunderstand towns, and to misunderstand their citizens. While our choices may have been curtailed in the short-term during the crisis, consuming locally because it is convenient, or even necessary, can become consuming locally because we care – about the future of community businesses, local places and spaces to meet, and what makes our towns unique.

If cash absolutely must be king in the recovery, consumers have the power to set the trajectory of government support. And it doesn’t have to just be along the Central, Piccadilly or Northern line. Instead, data at our disposal can help us to measure what we have treasured while staying close to home, so that towns, perhaps for the first time, can be recognised as assets in the public policy arena. So that opportunities for towns, perhaps for the first time, can be considered positively alongside the opportunities for the environment, good work, and supporting others in our communities that we have seen as a result of living locally. So that towns, at all times, can flourish.