Now is the time for the Government to recognise the UK’s city-centric economic model is broken. We need to build more resilient towns and commit to re-building our manufacturing sector.
At the heart of my Aberavon constituency sits Port Talbot – a proud, industrial, seaside town with a strong sense of community spirit and local identity. The nucleus of the town and its surrounding areas is the steelworks, which employs 4,000 people directly and thousands more through its supply chains. It provides UK industry with its steel backbone – from automotive to construction, to infrastructure.
Our cultural powerhouse is our community – from the creative talents of our arts and cultural groups, to the dedicated efforts and expertise of our keyworkers, to the entrepreneurial spirit shown by businesses throughout the current pandemic.
It’s a privilege to serve such a hardworking, innovative and resourceful community, and I know from speaking to other Labour MPs that they share similar sentiments about the constituencies that they represent.
But we all recognise that for far too long our towns have been left to compete with one hand tied behind their backs.
For a generation, politicians stood by as globalisation drove de-industrialisation, and the internet gutted high streets. Manufacturing decreased from 30% of GDP in the 1970s to around 9% today, with high quality, high productivity jobs disappearing to be replaced by low-income service jobs in industrial towns and high-wage service jobs in the major cities, whilst successive governments since 2010 compounded the impact of these underlying trends by imposing austerity on the very communities that were most in need of support.
The consequence of this seismic shift away from manufacturing and into services has been the emergence of a predominantly city-centric economic model, due to the extent to which businesses in the service sector benefit from ‘the network effect’ that is generated by their concentration in urban areas.
Political leaders have encouraged this trend. In 2017-18 a massive 46% of all capital expenditure on our railways went to London, and many of us are old enough to remember the city’s former Mayor, a certain Boris Johnson, once declaring that the “the jam from London must not be spread too thinly over the dry Ryvita of the regions”.
Our towns have been utterly neglected as engines for growth, and it’s the backlash against these decades of neglect that has contributed to so many of the bitter divisions in modern British politics.
But, of course, not all towns are the same, and not all towns face the same challenges. A major new analysis from HOPE not hate Charitable Trust sets out the diverse set of issues facing Britain’s towns, identifying the 14 “clusters” of socio-economic challenges that our towns face.
Port Talbot, for instance, is referenced in more than half of the 14 categories, including “shrinking and ageing” – pointing to the need to create a larger number of attractive local jobs in order prevent the ‘brain drain’ effect of 18 year olds heading to university never to return; an “uncertain industrial future” – reflecting the need to secure the long-term future of the steelworks; and “cross-cutting deprivation” – underlining the damaging impact of Conservative austerity and the need for more investment in our people. But other towns need to address quite different challenges, such as “rapid change”, “high competition for resources”, or an “authoritarian footprint” – where a form of political extremism has taken hold.
Different towns will need different types of government support, but what this new report makes clear is that the route to developing more optimistic, inclusive and resilient British towns is to place a greater commitment on meeting those 14 economic challenges.
This is not about simplistically labelling places ‘left behind’ – or blaming ‘backward’ social views – but taking tangible action to help places struggling with the local impacts of global shifts far beyond their control.
The Conservative government’s response to the post-pandemic recovery will be a test of whether they are committed to meeting this challenge – and of whether they recognise that our towns must play a central role in building a more resilient national economy.
They will be assisted by the fact that the pandemic has boosted working from home, and that city-dwellers will increasingly be re-locating to more affordable locations.
In short, we could be about to witness a ‘towns moment’, but only if the right decisions are made and the right leadership is shown. Local leaders and experts should be consulted, valued and empowered – something that would be more achievable if the UK were not the most centralised country in the G7.
A commitment to building more resilient towns must go hand in hand with a commitment to re-building our manufacturing sector. The Covid-19 crisis has illustrated the dangers of becoming too reliant on other countries for essential supply chains. Rebuilding our manufacturing capabilities will also be key to tackling regional inequality.
We need a modern manufacturing renaissance – supporting the industries that we already have, but also putting the UK at the heart of a green industrial revolution.
Port Talbot – and South Wales more widely – is already showing how we can be at the heart of the UK’s industrial future.
The Steel Unioins’ ‘Britain, We Need Our Steel’ campaign reflects the reality that importing steel from abroad dramatically increases CO2 emissions, while the SPECIFIC project at Swansea University is already working with Tata Steel to produce photovoltaic cells which could eventually turn every home into a power station. Now we need UK government to play it’s part, by backing the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon.
Now is the time for the government to recognise that our city-centric economic model is broken, that a modern manufacturing renaissance is urgently required, and that resilient towns must be at the heart of our post-pandemic recovery.