In 1981 after a summer of urban riots, environment secretary Michael Heseltine wrenched government policy towards the city. He convinced Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet, which had discussed the “managed decline” of Liverpool, to pour hundreds of millions of pounds into the city’s regeneration, along with London’s Docklands.
Now, after almost four decades and an array of urban initiatives that have transformed cities, politicians are identifying a new problem: towns.
Residents of towns, especially outside south-east England, tend to be older and less skilled than the UK average, according to official statistics. The high vote for Brexit in English and Welsh towns revealed their deep discontent with the status quo — and fear for the future.
The Conservative government, which prioritised cities for its first eight years in power, is suddenly talking about towns as Labour tightens its grip on big conurbations. In March it announced a £1.6bn “stronger towns fund” to invest in places “that have not shared in the proceeds of growth” as part of a failed bid to convince Labour MPs in “left behind” pro-Brexit constituencies to vote for prime minister Theresa May’s EU withdrawal deal.
Lisa Nandy, the Labour MP for Wigan, was not persuaded but nonetheless found the announcement “astonishing”. She said it “was the first time, I think in my lifetime, that a senior national politician had stood up at the despatch box of the House of Commons and recognised that there is a particular issue around towns.”
Another sign of a change in approach was an announcement this month of 12 new institutes of technology to train workers. All nine of the chosen locations outside London are in towns or small cities: Dudley, Solihull, Swindon, Lincoln, Durham, York, Milton Keynes, Weston-super-Mare and Exeter.
Devolution policy is also being refined. If town authorities want to benefit from deals providing more power and money, they have typically had to link up with a larger city and elect a metro mayor. But in 2016 the government started offering more limited “town deals”, the most recent of which was with Borderlands, an entity centred on the small city of Carlisle.
Jake Berry, Northern Powerhouse minister, has said that the initiative to revive the north launched in 2014 has been too focused on cities such as Manchester. He preferred to talk of the “northern power towns” that he said could contribute far more to the economy if given better transport links and investment.
Ms Nandy believes there is much more to do to establish the problems of towns on the political radar, so she has established the Centre for Towns think-tank, which for now is run on a shoestring budget from a garden shed in Bolton. It defines a town as a community of more than 10,000 residents that is not one of the 12 biggest in the UK.
Its first piece of research last year showed that in the 2017 general election, if just 33,000 votes switched from the Tories to Labour in a handful of town constituencies, Jeremy Corbyn would have become prime minister.
But the most striking discovery it has made is about demographics. Since 1981 towns have lost more than 1m under-25s and gained 2m pensioners. Cities, by contrast, are getting younger. Ms Nandy said the long-closed mines and factories have been replaced by call centres and warehouses with insecure, low-paid work. When Labour increased the number of young people able to go to university in the 2000s, many left towns to study and never returned, she said.
“Towns have lost their working-age population. As a consequence, they’ve lost spending power,” said Ms Nandy, with failing high streets reinforcing perceptions of decline. They also failed to attract global investors as the economy was opened up.
Will Jennings, co-founder of the Centre for Towns and a politics professor at the University of Southampton, said the ageing population in these places would have a profound impact on politics. “Age has replaced class as the most important dividing line in British politics,” he wrote in a report for the New Economics Foundation, a think-tank. Younger people are more likely than ever to vote Labour, and older people more likely than ever to back the Conservatives.
Hence the ex-mining town of Mansfield elected a Tory for the first time, while the university city of Canterbury broke with history to back Labour. Labour won 58 per cent of the vote in cities while the Tories won 48 per cent in small towns and 52 per cent in the countryside.
Rob Ford, politics professor at the University of Manchester, believes towns will again lose out to cities in the battle for politicians’ attention. “The political incentives pull one way [towards towns] but the institutional and cultural incentives pull the other,” he said. “The people who work in politics work in cities. Cities are gaining graduates and younger people, people with more influence on the political process.”