The declining economic fortunes of many towns, and the chasm that divides the experiences and outlooks of many of their inhabitants from the metropolitan centres where wealth and power have become concentrated, are issues of growing interest in political life and public policy.
In the UK, the preponderance of support for Brexit among town-dwellers, and the countervailing values of many young urbanites, has sparked a deep debate about how and why towns are locked out of the circuits of growth in the modern economy, and how the inequalities associated with economic geography can be more effectively tackled.
The Townscapes project launched at the Bennett Institute brings together a variety of different data sources to offer a deeper analysis of how towns are faring across the regions and nations of Britain. It aims to step away from the generalisations and dogmas that infuse much of the contemporary policy debate and offer instead a more finely grained picture of how different towns relate to their wider regions and nations, as well as to their nearest cities. It showcases the merits of a more granular and regionally rooted perspective for our understanding of geographical inequalities and the kinds of policy needed to address them.
Analysts at the Bennett Institute have pulled together a variety of different data sources - from the ONS, Ordnance Survey and National Records of Scotland - and created new indicators to measure the relative economic performance of towns, and compile a picture of changes in levels of public service provision. Specifically we have compiled an Improvement Index for all towns which measures relative changes across a basket of economic and demographic indicators and separate Public Services Indices which supply a picture of changes to service provision in areas like health, education, transport and infrastructure.
On the basis of these findings, we argue that policy makers need to consider multiple town categorisations, to get beneath the broad groupings that have become so dominant in this debate such as ‘university’, ‘coastal’, or ‘post-industrial’ towns. Instead we adopt a more useful data-driven typology developed by the ONS (2019) to contrast the fortunes of ‘working’, ‘partially residential’ and ‘residential’ towns in different parts of the country, and explore the crucial importance for many towns of their geographical distance from large urban centres.
These reports bust some of the prevalent myths about towns and their fortunes since the recession of 2007-08, and lead us towards a better appreciation of the very different circumstances and factors which affect the lives and opportunities of those who live in them. In addition to the insight and evidence which each supplies, we point policy-makers to ideas and proposals that are tailored to the regional and national circumstances which are pertinent to the townscapes of modern Britain.