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Towns favoured Brexit - but Brexit will not favour them

Source: PSE Dec/Jan 2019

Professor Duncan Maclennan CBE, professor of public policy at the University of Glasgow, argues we must recognise the entrepreneurial potential of local authorities in the wake of Brexit.

More attention needs to be paid to Britain’s towns, especially after reports such as Carnegie UK Trust’s ‘New Powers, New Deals: Remaking British Towns after Brexit’ revealed that the towns who were more likely to vote leave are the areas of the UK that could lose the most from the Brexit process.

The reality is, the real places of Britain – the regions, cities, and towns – need to take back control, and they need to do so not from the EU, but from the UK Parliament. Westminster politicians have played recklessly with all of our futures – not for the national interest, but for ephemeral gains within and between political parties.

Parliament dominates the spending and autonomies of local authorities; Britain is one of the most fiscally-centralised countries in the world. The Brexit process reflects that, and points to the urgent need to rebalance power within the UK.

With one or two exceptions, the cities of Britain voted to remain in the EU. Towns, in aggregate, did not, and it was their votes that drove the Brexit majority. The UK’s towns are diverse in size and prosperity. They include fast-growing places in southern Britain, remoter smaller market towns and ports, and the now disadvantaged industrial, coal, and steel towns that made Britain until the 1960s.

Two kinds of town voted to leave at high rates. First: in the southern and Midlands regions of England, growing towns that had experienced high rates of immigration through a decade of cutbacks in resources for investment in affordable housing, schools, healthcare provision, and other facilities. Badly-managed metropolitan growth always breeds resentments. Second: from the Welsh valleys to the old coalfields of the north and east of England, austerity programmes had cut deep into the wellbeing and hopes of residents in old industrial towns that had already faced three decades of economic decline. There, physical regeneration had not been accompanied with economic renewal through a succession of Conservative and Labour governments. Persistent poverty, and new pessimism, shaped a roar of voices for Brexit as old political loyalties ended.

This was despite regional policy measures, significantly shaped by EU support, often being the only significant investment for jobs in such localities. Andrés Rodríguez-Pose has written eloquently of ‘the revenge of the left-behind places’ – and the Brexit vote is the UK par excellence. This revenge is, in part, a product of policy neglect. It involves not just the adverse policy settings of austerity and restricted public investment after 2010, but also the sustained neglect of the third of UK citizens who live in towns in UK spatial policy.

Policy for places in the UK has typically focused upon regions and cities. Often, within these policy frameworks, there is little attention to individual towns or, indeed, to the whole regional ecology of smaller towns that is driven by the wider regional or metropolitan economy. This thoughtlessness is reflected in the near absence of extensive contemporary research on the dynamics, demographics, and development of UK towns (with the establishment of the Centre for Towns at the University of Southampton a welcome innovation).

Towns favoured Brexit, but Brexit will not favour them. Some towns, for instance those with significant tourist sectors, may benefit permanently from a lower pound, or those with demands that arise from within the UK and the wider non-EU world (such as smaller towns in the Scottish Highlands). Most, however, will suffer a significant negative economic shock. Opening ‘Theresa’s Box’ of soft and hard Brexit effects will fast bring a gale of negative effects to much of rural Britain and towns. The struggling towns of the north and Wales will have less rather than more public resource available to them as the national economy performs significantly worse than at present.

If the economy is to continue to grow at even modest rates for the next decade, and with the overall population ageing, then immigration to major metropolitan areas will have to remain at much the present rates. We may simply have to swap EU immigrants for non-EU immigrants. Again, the difficulties in the economy will forestall the appropriate provision of new amenities for these growing places and for integrating the immigrants who have done so much to promote growth and productivity in the UK economy. English nationalism is, arguably, imposing a severe cost on the poor of the land, and in the rest of the UK too.

Whether or not Brexit is hard, soft or abandoned, the disruption of the last few years has acted as a catalyst for new thinking and policy cases for towns, and they cannot be left so far behind in policy debate again. As Britain reshapes spatial-regional policies, in or out of the EU, there must be a real effort to shift control down from the old decentralised Westminster- and Whitehall-driven UK. Instead, it must go to the regions, cities, towns, and communities that build and rebuild the country every day.

This shift will need ‘new deals’ for towns that both energise and modernise their leadership, but these deals must be driven by ‘new partnerships’ within towns, between private, public and non-profit sectors. These partnerships must connect across all towns within a ‘policy action network’ that is represented within broader regional economic partnerships. There are limits to the localisation of effective powers to promote economic development, but they need to be re-explored for these new times and set within effective frameworks of national to local resource redistribution and fiscal equalisation.

There is a need to recognise the potential entrepreneurial roles of local governments (just as budgets to support such efforts are being cut) and to reframe longstanding major policy settings on, for instance, public debt and infrastructure.

It is time for the UK to implement the EU notion of ‘subsidiarity,’ of moving decision power to the most local level at which it is economical to do so. Few can trust UK level politics to change our towns and cities for the better; remaking trust and collaboration in Britain now needs a more bottom-up approach.


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