Claims to support ‘left-behind communities’ have become something of a commonplace for progressive politicians and commentators in Westminster. The term itself is usually left undefined, but is often taken to refer to the ageing towns across the country where social mobility has hit the ice, where vulnerability is high, and where access to opportunity is somewhere between low and nonexistent. From market towns to former industrial towns; from coastal towns to commuter towns – think Clacton-on-Sea, think Medway, think Grimsby.
Few could question the dire state of regional inequality within the UK. Whilst overall inequality is becoming increasingly severe (with the most recent ONS bulletin reporting a 1.6% income contraction for the poorest fifth compared to a 4.7% increase for their wealthier equivalents), the gap between towns and cities is worsening too. According to the Centre for Towns, 71.3% of town residents believe their area will be less central to British society in the future (compared to 53.5% in cities), whilst 67.7% believe current politicians do not care about their community. As London and the South East increase their wealth advantage over the national average, comparative disadvantage is being entrenched in the Midlands and North East.
Regional inequality, and inequality between towns and cities in particular, has implications that stretch beyond the economic. Research from Hope not Hate indicates that the 100 places best fitting the ‘latent hostile’ attitude towards immigration are mainly located in post-industrial and coastal communities, with small and medium sized towns accounting for 49% of all ‘latent hostile’ areas. The share for core city areas is a mere 5%.
Opposition to immigration is often driven by these self-same economic imbalances. Affinity to the ‘latent hostile’ and ‘active enmity’ tribes are positively correlated with higher levels of education, training and skills deprivation based on the indices of multiple deprivation (IMD). What’s more, British Future’s National Conversation and data from the British Election Study reveal that the drivers of anti-immigrant sentiment in specific areas are often related to local economic downturn. Given the entrenchment of disadvantage mentioned above, it should come as no surprise that a statement such as ‘immigrants take jobs away from people who were born in Britain’ is most salient in the North East.
However, well-intentioned concerns about regional disadvantage can risk concealing a more complex reality. At their best, they draw the occupants of the political bubble out into the real world, and facilitate a greater understanding of the constituents that politicians are elected to represent. At their worst, they help to perpetuate an image of struggling towns and regions across the country as a homogenous mass, a Britain ‘left behind’ by Westminster whose concerns and issues may be resolved by a quick financial top-up from the centre.
Deep inequality between regions, cities and towns fuels not just anti-immigrant sentiment, but a broader discontent with a political elite perceived only to be interested in people when they successfully ‘rock the boat’. This discontent runs deep; it is identity-defining, and is compounded by a centralised structure of government that denies residents the agency to ‘take back control’ of where they live, and patronises them when they attempt to affect change.
Today’s announcement of a £1.6bn fund for struggling towns does nothing to resolve tensions nor empower local communities; in fact, it epitomises the entire problem. It is ‘pork barrel’ politics at its worst, seemingly allocating the settlement to benefit the Leave-voting areas represented by certain MPs deemed persuadable in the ongoing Brexit saga. It will funnel the money through ineffective Local Enterprise Partnerships that fail to include local teachers, nurses and community leaders, instead involving wealthy businessmen and local politicians. Distributing money through these partnerships might make sense if they were targeted specifically at individual towns. But LEPs cover vast areas – one LEP represents the entirety of the South East. How can they know what towns need?
And what message does today’s announcement send to towns up and down the country? If residents feel defiant against a distant and uncaring government, and expresses that defiance through breakdowns in community cohesion, what good will be achieved by a centrally-administered financial bung, underwritten by Machiavellian scheming, and distributed without the input of the people who make towns thrive?
Yvette Cooper argued in a recent piece for the Tribune Group that “government needs a proper industrial strategy for towns. It needs to shape the impact of technology and globalisation so towns can benefit, and to empower towns to seize new opportunities and benefits rather than repeatedly losing out”. This means genuine, long-term investment. It means empowering local communities from the ground up. It means awarding towns the respect they deserve, and not treating them as a political pawn in a fraught game of Brexit chess.