Can we generalise the fortunes of towns in the UK? Ben Goodair and Michael Kenny from the Bennett Institute for Public Policy argue that the patterns and policy challenges are very different in Scotland, and debates over the prosperity of towns in Scotland is likely to surface in the upcoming election campaign.
The geographical pattern of support for leaving the European Union, rather than remaining, shone a bright light on the chasm in opportunities, wealth and worldview between many towns and rural areas and some of the largest cities.
The divisions have sparked a continuing debate about what explains the gaps and whether new policies are needed to address the challenges facing ‘left behind’ towns.
With another General Election soon upon us, these issues will be amplified because some of the key marginal constituencies where the battle between the main political parties is most intense include a large number of these towns.
Already there is talk that ‘Workington Man’ could become the key demographic in the coming contest as Boris Johnson’s Conservatives target seats in leave-supporting Labour constituencies.
But this electoral calculation has been almost entirely based upon towns in Northern England. Can we generalise about the fortunes of towns elsewhere in this way? And do the same patterns and challenges apply in Scotland?
These are questions that we have explored in our data-based ‘Townscapes’ project at the Bennett Institute at Cambridge University.
Our research shows that the patterns – and the policy challenges – are indeed very different in Scotland. For a start, people who live in its towns tend to vote in a more varied way than in England. The swing towards the Conservatives across much of Scotland in the 2017 election happened in towns like Perth and Ayr. But this was not true elsewhere. Labour made small gains in Motherwell, Kirkcaldy and Livingston, while the SNP retained many seats in the central belt.
On Scotland’s west coast, nearly all towns are declining faster in economic terms than the average British town. But those on the east coast are in a very different situation, with places like Peterhead prospering on the basis of its fishing, oil and gas industries.
Those Scottish towns furthest away from a city tend to have their own self-sufficient economies as they have more jobs situated within their centres.
At the same time, some places near to the prospering big cities are doing particularly well, and bucking the wider trend towards town decline that is apparent across the rest of the UK.
Dunfermline is one such example. It experienced the largest population growth of any town in Britain between 2001 and 2011, and over the last decade it was the third fastest economically improving town in Britain.
Its industrial heritage, adaptable economy and role as a dormitory for professionals working in Edinburgh have supported a large increase in the town’s population and in public service provision.
But there are also some notable similarities between some of Scotland’s towns and those in other parts of the UK.
High streets north of the border are often struggling, as they are in England. Nearby cities continue to hoover up much of the nation’s high-skilled labour. Currently, nearly four-fifths of all public service jobs are located in either Glasgow or Edinburgh. And hard-pressed councils are having to deal with funding reductions.
In recent years there has been a notable shift towards the consolidation of key public services in Scotland, following the mergers of some regional police and fire services.
Concerns about the plight of smaller places outside the big cities have made their way into Scottish politics in recent years. New Scottish Government policies have been introduced to support town centre living and enable the re-use of empty premises on the high street. Its latest budget includes a proposal for a new £50 million Town Centre Fund.
These issues will surface in the election campaign now underway.
Our research suggests that the debate about towns needs to engage two key points if it is to be meaningful.
First, we need to put aside tempting generalisations about towns and the people who live in them and get a more granular understanding based on evidence of the particular challenges and dynamics at work in each place.
And, second, we need to use a wide variety of tools when it comes to developing tailored policies for different places. One important part of the tool-kit concerns governance.
The Scottish Government is in control of most of the policy areas that affect the fortunes of towns and has the capacity to make decisions on housing, skills and healthcare that will make a huge difference to them. It should, therefore, be held accountable for its policies, and its political opponents’ ideas scrutinised too. But so too should the UK Government, which remains responsible for some of the most important fiscal and economic decisions affecting the prosperity of cities and towns across the land.
There is every reason to think that towns will do better if local government is stronger, and placed on a more sustainable financial footing. This suggests that the devolution of power within Scotland may also be an important part of the policy mix required to tackle the challenges facing many of its towns.