If, for some strange reason, you need a reminder of where British politics is at right now, have a look at how Monday’s announcement of the government new £1.6 billion Stronger Towns Fund has been received. This is a new pot of money to be invested on a “needs-based formula” designed to “boost growth and give communities a greater say in their future after Brexit.” What’s not to like, right? Yet it has gone down like a bucket of sick – and not without reason.
Some have described the fund as a bribe, designed to “buy off” Labour MPs who represent the mostly Leave-voting towns and convince them to vote for the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal. Others have perceived a slight cynicism in announcing funding for areas the Labour Party perceives to be key electoral battlegrounds that will play an important role in deciding the outcome of the next general election, whenever that may be.
Many have noted too the paltry size of the fund. Comparisons with the amount of European Union money currently received by each English region make it look utterly insignificant. As such, it is also fairly irrelevant. A replacement for that EU funding should be provided at some point by the UK government-administered Shared Prosperity Fund, though it is unclear what that will actually look like. Comparisons between the Stronger Towns Fund and the scale of funding cuts endured in recent years by each region are perhaps more apt.
But the really interesting thing about the Stronger Towns Fund is how it fits into wider debates about the regional allocation of national public spending. The government has announced that the fund will be split into £1 billion allocated using an slightly opaque “needs-based formula”, which considers “a combination of productivity, income, skills, deprivation metrics and proportion of the population living in towns”. The other £0.6 billion is to be awarded competitively. The government has also announced where in England the needs-based funding will go. On a per head basis, it is overwhelmingly heading north. Curiously, the South East is to receive more than the East of England or the South West, but these remain the three regions set to receive least. Greater London region has been left out entirely. Presumably, that is because none of its people are considered to live in a town.
My recent report for Centre For London, entitled London, UK, highlighted how discussion of the regional allocation of transport infrastructure investment has become toxic and unproductive. There is a risk that anti-London sentiment is now playing a part in wider decision-making. Centre for Cities found that national austerity has, in fact, seen London disproportionately hit by funding cuts. As my report also noted, the capital is home to some of the most deprived communities in the country, and Londoners in the lower half of the income scale are worse off than their equivalents elsewhere after housing costs. Greater London may generate a huge “fiscal surplus” that is distributed around the country, but not all Londoners share in this prosperity.
In fact, much of the city has more in common with deprived towns elsewhere in the nation than it does with its most affluent areas. London’s history is one of the near-uncontrollable growth of a series of towns and distinct communities into one larger, built-up urban area. But London still contains numerous disconnected places that economically, culturally and socially behave and feel like towns. As Sadiq Khan said at Centre for London’s 2018 Conference, “Whitehall might be based in London, but it’s as politically remote to the residents of Sutton, Southwark and Stanmore as it is to those in Stirling, Swansea and Stoke.” Many of the 10 per cent of most deprived communities in England are in London. Have a look at this map and see for yourself.
The Stronger Towns Fund should be welcomed in principle. But it must be recognised that this is simultaneously a tiny amount of money and no replacement for EU funding or for the forthcoming Shared Prosperity Fund, (whatever that turns out to be), and that such investment is needed across the country wherever deprivation exists. Leaving London’s poorer communities out helps no one, and can only reinforce disadvantage.
We need to change the way we talk about place in this country and end the London versus the rest, cities versus towns, and north versus south debates. They are not doing anyone much good.