My little town
Last week, the Conservative Party won parliamentary seats in places so traditionally Labour, that most Tories didn’t know they were places. The significance of the Conservative inroads into Labour towns clearly goes beyond the record books. As former Cabinet Minister, Yvette Cooper, explained it on election night. “There is a really serious growing gap between cities and towns in this country”. However, the North will need to move quickly if it is to benefit from Johnson's new-found interest in its towns.
City vs Town
To be clear, regenerating the northern cities remains unfinished business. The future won’t be easy. But, their younger, better skilled populations and more diverse economies combined with a national system driven by capital returns mean that overall they are better placed to weather what is to come. However, for our stand-alone and satellite towns, people, pipeline and politics will severely limit the extent and duration of the focus on northern towns.
A People Government
More than usual, this will have to be a government about the people (if not of them!). Changes in the size and distribution of the population will have an unusually high impact on government policy-making. England’s population will grow, but at different speeds; old faster than young; southern faster than northern; city faster than town. Longitudinal trends, like ageing, will devour discretionary spending. Structural decline cannot simply be reversed by a few headline-catching capital proposals.
Ce n’est pas un pipeline
English bureaucratic, economic and political systems don’t work for towns. Their decision making processes (understandably) back growth over decline, project return over wider externalities and capacity before need. Only two of the announced 27 hospital building projects (well, mainly thinking about building projects), lie in northern towns.
England’s fiscal regime and subsidy systems respond to high prices and return on capital. So, increasing the Stamp Duty threshold for southern first time buyers left their northern peers worse off. Unless, the proposed local government “Fair Funding Formula” retains significant deprivation weightings, George Osborne’s wheeze to fund councils solely from their tax bases will massively undercut any Johnsonian targeted investment.
This decade’s halving of local government capacity and the shortage of skilled regeneration officers already puts Birmingham well ahead of Burnley in the post-election race for “oven-ready” transformational investment.
Add into this mix, the siren voices of the Conservative heartlands who will want their share, (especially if the economy flatlines after Brexit) and it is a brave Minister who, in three years’ time, will be channelling more money into Redcar than Ramsgate.
How many bricks in the red wall?
Distinguishing political reality from rhetoric is important for understanding what will happen next. Yes, the new northern seats represent a huge shift locally – but they are not central to a future Tory majority. Without them, the Prime Minister would still have a majority of 54. The aspiration to cut the Commons to 600 MPs will eliminate more northern seats. Re-drawing the boundaries on 2017’s meagre northern fare would already have given the Blue cause a 16 (mainly southern) seat majority. Fewer seats will mean less money allocated after 2023.
And in the end …
(As the noted political philosopher, Paul McCartney once asserted) the love you take, is equal to the love make. The principal way for a government to make voters love them is to make the economy grow. Global economic trends that eroded the North’s pits, steel works, ports, town centres and sundry staple industries will not cease after Brexit.
RPs and councils should take heart from the Conservative predisposition towards towns. Enlightened investment bodies like the English Cities Fund and lobby groups like the Centre for Towns will help extend the window of opportunity. But, in the end, the future of the newly Conservative northern towns lies in the central, unresolved question of the election. Will Brexit transform our marginalised towns? Or, as Paul Simon described, leave “Nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town"?