Today’s launch of the Stronger Towns Fund should have been so positive. For the first time, after decades of neglect, the government has recognised that the current settlement doesn’t work for our nation’s towns and has not done so for some time.
For over four decades towns have watched as good jobs disappear, only to be replaced with low-paid insecure work. When investment was made available it went to the cities in the hope the benefits would trickle out to towns. Largely, they didn’t. In towns across Britain the loss of those good jobs has cost us spending power and footfall, leaving our high streets struggling, our transport networks decimated and our populations ageing rapidly as young people increasingly move away looking for better opportunities elsewhere.
The prime minister recognised that these towns are proud places with rich heritage. My town in Wigan once powered the world through dangerous, difficult work in the coal mines. We deserve a better future than simply becoming a dormitory town for Manchester commuters. For decades national government has failed to recognise the anger this creates. It is welcome that it finally has.
But given the scale of those challenges, what was needed today was a game changer. Instead it turns out the government plans to invest £1.6bn over six years. That amounts to just £40m a year for all of the towns in the northwest of England. To put that into context, in Wigan alone our council has had its budget cut by £134m since 2010 and more cuts are coming. This fund doesn’t even begin to make a dent in what has so recently been lost, let alone rebuild the infrastructure we need to attract investment and kick-start economic growth.
Worse still is the timing. Coming just days before a key Brexit vote, it is no wonder many people see this as a bribe to persuade MPs to vote through the withdrawal agreement. To do so, without any guarantees about the next stage of negotiations which will determine the trading relationship with the EU, would be absurd. From the ceramics industry in Stoke to food manufacturing in Wigan, those jobs and their supply chains depend on getting our future trading relationship right. If the PM wants votes for her deal, that’s where her focus should be. She should know that our votes are not for sale.
It also hints at the sort of politics that has let our towns down for a generation. Just like the decision to create city-regions, taken by small groups of men behind closed doors with no consultation with the people affected, this fund risks exacerbating the sense that decisions are made distantly and opaquely with little regard for the consequences. If they had asked, they would have learnt that distributing funding through the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) will replicate the city-centric decision that has let our towns down for so long.
It is this approach that has left people feeling they are not valued or important. Work by Will Jennings of Southampton University has highlighted how people in towns are significantly more likely to believe “politicians don’t care about me or my area” than those in cities. What is needed is more respect.
For genuine transformation, we need longer-term investment for our buses, trains, skills base, and digital infrastructure, alongside the power to decide how that money is spent. Without that business will continue to go elsewhere. As the Centre for Towns and Ernst and Young have shown, smaller towns and communities receive 40 per cent less foreign direct investment than they did just over a decade ago, whilst cities have increased their share fourfold to more than half of all projects.
If the government really wants to reverse this trend it needs a complete change of approach that shows genuine respect for these areas. Today’s announcement will have confirmed for many people in towns that the government is more interested in its own survival than in theirs. That must change.
Lisa Nandy is the Labour MP for Wigan
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