The England that Westminster forgot

5 Apr 19

How austerity and the dismantling of ‘Stalinist’ regional aid has divided an entire country. Peter Hetherington reports. 

Bins Alamy


Straddling the winding A697 into Scotland, the small border town of Wooler could easily have followed countless other places in a familiar spiral of decline: seemingly left behind, ignored by decisionmakers, starved of essential services, as big cities powered ahead leaving others struggling to survive.

It is a familiar story. Local industries contract. Banks close; two recently in Wooler. Shops shut. Libraries disappear. Bus services are axed, leaving many isolated. From the old mill towns of Lancashire to the once-thriving mining communities across the Pennines in the North East and Yorkshire, some towns seem to have disappeared from the political radar screen, out of sight and mind of government.

Others, like Wooler, ‘Gateway to the Cheviots’, have defied the odds through local endeavour. From modest beginnings in 1996, a local community trust in the Northumberland town has grown into a significant economic player. It has an annual revenue of £100,000, capital assets of almost £3m and five staff.

Among other things, it operates a community and business centre that incorporates a library, owns high street shops and a large youth hostel, plus it has delivered 18 affordable homes. And the trust is not short of ambition; an issue of £1,000 bonds for locals recently raised £128,000.

Wooler has been successful partly because its trust was created when a new regionalism was dawning in England. Eight regional development agencies – one in North East England – delivered modest support and grants to underpin community enterprises. Government regional offices provided a local ear for ministers. A national regeneration agency, English Partnerships – which helped kickstart an ambitious regeneration project nearby in the old coal port of Amble – provided additional support when needed.

After 2010, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government abolished an entire apparatus, partly in the name of austerity. Former business secretary Vince Cable promised that some RDAs would be saved, but then communities secretary Sir Eric Pickles (below right) dismissed the regional apparatus as “Stalinist”. He won the day. And while the state withdrew, cutbacks in local government funding, spearheaded by Pickles and disproportionately hitting the poorest areas, dealt a further blow to provincial England.

But when 62 of the 73 local authority areas in the North voted to leave the EU in June 2016 – and with 6.3 million northern people living away from big cities, often in areas pejoratively labelled ‘post-industrial’ – both government and opposition belatedly took notice. Did the Brexit vote partly represent a revolt by the forgotten? Theresa May seemed to think so. She promised a radical agenda in which “no one and no community is left behind”.

But it has taken almost three years for the PM to promise anything specific. Her £1.6bn Stronger Towns Fund, announced in March to win over MPs in the Midlands and northern England to support her Brexit deal, has all the hallmarks of a cobbled-together package. To be spread over seven years, critics describe it as a “paltry sum”.

As for Labour – which, northern MPs say is London-centric and woefully ignorant of regional challenges – bland statements about a worrying and widening North-South divide are no substitute for policy. It has now commissioned a leading regional academic and economist, Professor Steve Fothergill of Sheffield Hallam University, to help write a new strategy.

With national and local government hollowed out after nine years of austerity, there’s little capacity and even fewer institutions to address the PM’s concerns, aside from a network of local economic partnerships. But LEPS have a low profile, with a mixed record of delivery and a budget well short of RDA funding.

Few, if any, policies are in place – except, ironically, EU regional and social funding, which delivers £1.5bn annually to rundown parts of the UK. It addresses deep-seated problems such as joblessness, vacant and abandoned town centres, and poor housing, often in left-behind places.

In its last election manifesto, the Conservative Party promised a shared prosperity fund to replace European funding – distinct, so far, from the PM’s initiative. But Stephen Kinnock, MP for Aberavon and chair of an all-party parliamentary group on EU regional funding, fears plans for the fund have been kicked into the long grass – although the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy insists the government “recognises the importance of reassuring communities on the future of local growth funding once we have left the EU”.

“We were promised consultation last autumn,” laments Kinnock. “Now we are approaching spring and the government is treading water. It’s an utter disgrace.”

At least a new consensus is emerging, across parties, challenging the received wisdom of urban policy in England through successive governments: namely that encouraging growth and devolution settlements with elected mayors in larger population centres (Greater Manchester, Merseyside, the West Midlands, Teesside, West of England and Peterborough-Cambridge, for instance) will somehow spill over into surrounding, poorer places.

Professor Andy Pike, of Newcastle University’s Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies, is not alone in questioning whether the limits of “city-centrism” have been reached. “Growing disparities in the UK – which has among the highest levels internationally – suggest that the wider spread of benefits has not reached the people and places left behind or sufficiently connected them to central urban prosperity,” he argues.

Late last year, pressure group Centre for Towns, the Coalfields Regeneration Trust, the Industrial Communities Alliance and the Key Cities Group produced a report entitled Places with Purpose. It complained that a preoccupation with supporting London and larger cities had led to governments neglecting smaller cities, towns and communities, thus “ignoring the social consequences of growing inequality within the UK”.

Political leaders can’t hear what’s happening in these left-behind places, and people lack any kind of route to make themselves heard 
- Lisa Nandy, Labour MP for Wigan and co‑founder of the Centre for Towns 

Lisa Nandy, Labour MP for Wigan and co-founder of the Centre for Towns, insists the problems go deeper, right into political parties, and strike at the heart of her own ‘London-centric’ party leadership. She says Downing Street’s proposed Stronger Towns Fund will do little to soften the impact of austerity. Towns such as her constituency have been “shamefully neglected for decades”, she says. andy complains that political structures are unfit for purpose. “Political leaders can’t hear what’s happening in these left-behind places,” she rails. “ And people lack any kind of route to make themselves heard – while Whitehall sees only problems not solutions.”

But parts of government are stirring. A few weeks ago, a group largely from the North – including Nandy and Professor Steve Fothergill, who heads the Barnsley-based Industrial Communities Alliance, representing once-thriving industrial towns – met business and industry secretary Greg Clark. He promised to consult cabinet colleagues and floated the idea of a series of ‘town deals’ between the government and communities to kickstart renewal programmes.

Whether he was consulted over Theresa May’s latest initiative is not clear. But Fothergill recalls: “He was sympathetic and supportive. I really feel, when it comes to [addressing challenges in] towns that the tide is turning our way a little bit.”

That may be so. But domestic government has effectively ground to a halt. Civil servants speak despairingly of ‘strategy stasis’. The official opposition in parliament is convulsed by internal wrangling. And with Brexit dominating the political agenda, few noticed a report from the Carnegie UK Trust, which, for some time, has been quietly addressing the plight of many smaller towns.

Jennifer Wallace, head of policy at the Dunfermline-based think-tank and charity, despairs that towns fail to gain the attention of policymakers. “The conversation is often focused on the high street,” she reflects. “It is rare to find evidence or policy on the wider role of the town as a place in which people live, work and play. Policymakers often reduce towns to a description of their needs – places of multiple deprivation, ageing, poor, dilapidated – and not of opportunity.”

As Wallace says, it is difficult to create a positive vision if conversations start from a negative perspective. In truth, left-behind places represent a challenge for governments in much of the West. Some countries tackle regional problems – disparities between large cities and peripheral towns – with more vigour than others. Late last year, for instance, the Washington-based Brookings Institution reported a “dramatic gap” between two Americas – one set in thriving, diverse metropolitan regions, the other in more “homogeneous small towns… struggling under the weight of economic stagnation and social decline.” It noted that this gap had shocked many observers during the last presidential election.

The parallels with the UK are profound; remember the remainers’ shock at the scale of the revolt in the regions in 2016? The pity is that May has wasted three years trying to deliver any strategy for left-behind places, while austerity continues to bear down on them with a vengeance.

In parts of Europe, however, a different agenda is unfolding. Germany, for instance, is launching a special commission for a 20-year programme of economic regeneration to compensate regions for coal mine closures. It will have a €40bn budget. Such forward planning has eluded UK governments – but not, thankfully, some ambitious communities. They’ve taken matters into their own hands. Often, all they need is a bit of pump priming. Sadly, the agencies that supplied it have been abolished.

Rather than warm ministerial words, action is needed to recreate mechanisms capable of delivering support. That means a transformation in government, with new and beefed up national and regional institutions to address the scale of the challenge.

Crucially, it needs vision and determination at the top – qualities lacking for quite some time.

Turning back the tide

Twenty years ago, the Northumberland coastal town of Amble seemed set for a slow decline. The last nearby colliery had closed by the mid-1980s. The town looked neglected. Its pier was cordoned off and literally falling into the sea. The high street seemed on its last legs.

Then, in 2000, English Partnerships rebuilt the pier and a promenade – an initiative that would be difficult today without a national regeneration agency – providing a local development trust with a springboard for further investment.

With help from EU funds and a now abolished regional development agency, it bought and renewed shops, created a new town square, built a ‘harbour village’ with small shops, and redeveloped the harbour front.

Gradually, Amble became a ‘destination town’, with new cafés, businesses and fish restaurants supported by a local fleet. The population expanded. Hundreds of new homes were built. A theatre was created in an old school. “A lot of people moved here – families from the South – because of our amenities,” enthuses Julia Aston, director of Amble Development Trust.

A few miles north in Wooler, Frank Mansfield, trustee and former chair of Glendale Gateway Trust, reveals plans to extend the trust’s reach. Its property portfolio already includes five shops, 18 affordable homes, a large community hub-cum-library, and adjoining units for small businesses. Now a local entrepreneur is building a large whisky distillery.

“We’ve got 21 projects on the go, have a very significant asset base and are self-sufficient,” says Mansfield. “And 10% of our income every year goes into a long-term maintenance fund.”

Tom Johnston, the trust’s chief executive, remembers the early days, “when we were flying by the seat of our pants”. Then, he always felt there was a safety net. “I do not see that now,” he adds.

In short, ambitious communities largely have to fend for themselves.

  • Peter Hetherington

    former regional affairs editor of The Guardian and past chair of the Town and Country Planning Association

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