The recent Demos Report “Talk of the Town” seeks to highlight the very different “performance” of towns from their neighbouring cities. It has selected a range of measures through which to compare aspects positive and negative, to some extent social but more economic, through which to suggest how well each community is faring. I am not competent to comment on these metrics but do see a significant opportunity missed in this analysis.
It is true that Demos’ authors allow that there is more to be done in progressing this valuable work. It is valuable in part because it is overdue; and because all political parties are exploring forms of devolution which may impact on or be affected by the truth of the findings. However, if the project sought to depict the differences between urban categories, then they have started at the wrong end of the spectrum. Yes, choose cities as the dominant regional players; but surely to select for comparison the next thing to cities – the largest nearby towns – is to compare younger siblings with their older brother or sister, rather than with children from a different family. Surely a more striking and useful comparison would be between cities and smaller, more remote market towns. Isolation is surely one of the most economically debilitating of features for individuals and communities.
Take, by way of example, the choices of Portslade and Shoreham-by-sea for comparison with Brighton. Both are actually part of the Brighton-Hove continuum. Portslade is part of the city’s bus routes and shares an MP with the Western end of the city. You will see no boundary of fields or other geographic features as you move from one to the other. Yes, they may have their own town centres; but so do different parts of Brighton and Hove. Economically they are surely suburbs; interdependent, not distinct. Some city suburbs have lower performance than others, because of the nature of their housing, history, commerce etc; but they are part of the same economy. Similarly, surely Fareham, Havant and Portsmouth are of one conurbation. Most trios selected are commuter lands.
Size too has relevance as well as proximity. Critical mass can determine just how well served citizens are by public services, infrastructure, policing, etc. Small can be beautiful when it comes to communities to live in; so long as one can afford living there. But lack of affordable rents, limited or non-existent public transport, lack of access to mains gas, healthcare, jobs and job centres make smaller rural and coastal communities very different to towns under the wings of cities.
It is, though, the combination of size and remoteness which leads to deprivation and particular needs in coastal and country towns. I suspect (and challenge/encourage Demos to go the extra miles away from their cities to find out) that the gaps between city and small and/or remote town are far greater than those shown in the work so far. What of the “performance” of Burgess Hill or Uckfield; Hastings or Hythe; Clacton or Harwich; Thirsk or Saltburn; Bolton or Fleetwood?
Far from making the case for the sort of towns selected so far being considered as distinct, as it seeks to claim, thus far it illustrates co-dependence. The true distinction must lie between city and market town or seaside resort; with these as yet being given little consideration in the devolution debate.
Tom Serpell, LCC Executive Member