At the heart of my Aberavon constituency sits Port Talbot, a genuinely welcoming seaside town in South Wales with a proud industrial, steelmaking history, surrounded by villages and valleys that add so much character to our local area. Our steelworks remain front-and-centre to the town’s economy and identity – despite employing just 4,000 workers compared to 18,000 at its 1960s peak – but we have plenty more that we are also proud of: from our creative community groups, to our state-of-the-art Swansea Bay campus, to the incredible contribution key workers have made in tackling Covid-19.
These characteristics make Port Talbot a special place and there are towns all across Britain that hold their own unique identities and stories that inspire local pride. Indeed, a major new analysis by HOPE not hate charitable trust of all 862 towns across England and Wales reminds us of the diverse nature of our towns, as well as the varying challenges they face. The authors identify 14 “clusters” of challenging economic characteristics faced by towns – from “shrinking and ageing”, to “uncertain industrial futures” and “cross-cutting deprivation” – with different towns typically experiencing three or four of the 14 challenges. These clusters sit alongside an analysis of a range of different attitudes towards cultural issues, such as multiculturalism and immigration.
I’ve always felt an enormous sense of honour and pride representing my Aberavon constituency in Westminster, and I know that many other MPs feel a similar level of respect and admiration for the towns that they represent. Yet I know they also share my grave concerns that for too long too many British towns have been made to compete with one hand tied behind their backs. Both accident and design have played their part here; for a generation, politicians stood by as globalisation drove de-industrialisation and the erosion of high-skilled jobs and the internet age gutted high streets. For a decade, right-wing governments foisted austerity on places that instead needed investment, whilst ivory-tower thinkers championed a blinkered vision of growth that let resources, wealth and opportunity get sucked into major cities. Towns were neglected as engines for growth.
As a result, the energy and talent found in local people has either been underused or has moved to where it can be expressed, most often leaving for university and unlikely to return home due to a lack of opportunities. Brain drain and ageing populations are the inevitable result, alongside a level of cynicism about the benefits of fast-paced economic and cultural change. But HOPE not hate’s report shows that instead of constantly reverting to the narrative of the ‘left behind’ – or blaming ‘backward’ social views – we should be taking tangible action to help places struggling with the local impacts of global shifts far beyond their control. In Port Talbot, we have seen how a town can nurture its spirit, determination and creativity to flourish in the face of economic adversity, whilst continuing to be welcoming of new faces, whoever you are, wherever you are from.
My experiences have taught me that a prevalent force in many a town tends to be a sense of ‘communitarianism’. Typically this means a strong sense of identity rooted in both a sense of local place and the nation, a desire for community cohesion and a determination that people should play by the rules, work hard and contribute. It’s true that this ‘politics of belonging’ can sometimes spill over into racism or xenophobia – but this usually occurs when mainstream politicians have ceded the conversation to the far right, by either disengaging from communitarian values, or at times generalising about – or actively goading – small-town communities. But scratch under the surface and there is actually enormous potential to harness place-based identity for progressive ends. From it, we can build an inclusive politics that articulates the language of family, community, good work and fairness and that empowers local communities, businesses, politicians and public services.
HOPE not hate’s report recommendations begin to set a pathway forward that can help us build more confidence, optimism and inclusive identities into our towns. The report rightly states that Covid-19 must be treated as a “towns moment”, acting as a spur for local and national governments to tackle the economic and infrastructure challenges that reduce a town’s resilience. Policymakers should understand that the needs of each individual town vary significantly, meaning that bespoke approaches will be required, but also that the sharing of best practice – perhaps through a new ‘Towns Network’ – could prove invaluable, it advises.
Politicians of all stripes should take note. The 2019 general election reminded us that towns are at the forefront of UK politics, to the extent that the party that wins in our towns is the party that will shape our country’s future. Now we must recognise the economic importance of these bustling hubs of potential growth and creativity and put them at the centre of our country’s post-pandemic recovery. With political determination and smart investment, places like Port Talbot can shape our economy and provide a blueprint for the type of inclusive, cohesive and prosperous society we want to see.