As we argued in our ‘Townscapes’ series of papers analysing the fortunes of towns in some of the different nations and regions of Great Britain, how policymakers conceptualise and measure the success of places will do much to determine their choice of the policies needed to address the challenges these places face.
This makes the ONS’ latest analysis of town-scale data in England and Wales very timely indeed. The Government is rolling out its flagship Towns Fund as well as beginning the challenging task of replacing EU structural funds with a UK Shared Prosperity Fund by April 2021. A key aspect of this shift will be the assessment of which areas are most in need of UK government funding.
The ONS first released a towns analysis in 2019. This has had a major impact on subsequent policy research and thinking about towns. It opted to categorise different conurbations based on their job density, and developed an important distinction between towns that were ‘Residential’ or ‘Working’ in character.
This recent publication analyses the trajectories of towns by reporting their population growth and employment growth. Some of its starkest findings relate to stark geographical differences in relation to both of these factors.
The ONS found that ‘Working towns’ had, on average, more population growth than ‘Residential towns’. But the pattern was weaker when comparing population growth in high-deprivation and low-deprivation towns. There is a notable fall in the average population size of ‘Residential towns,’ however wealthy they are.
We reported broadly similar findings in the Bennett Institute’s Townscapes project. We also analysed the economic trajectories of different towns and correlated these with relative affluence or deprivation, and found that, for many regions, there is no strong relationship between the two. This raises a challenging question for government: if population change is not highly correlated with deprivation, how bad are the economic consequences of declining population size for a town, and has demographic decline been overstated as a problem?
It is possible that the consequences of population decline take some years to manifest themselves. Or it may be that population decline affects towns in ways that are not typically measured at this geographic scale.
A different answer to this question emerges from our own work - particularly our finding that economic growth is often correlated with the numbers of different services available in a place. Therefore measuring a town’s economy in terms of the quantum infrastructure it includes and the number of services it contains, may tell us more about a place’s economic trajectory and prospects than its demography. In other words, paying close attention to the how a town’s high-street is doing, and what is happening to its public services and infrastructure, may well provide a particularly important barometer of how places are doing overall in economic terms.
According to the ONS, only 6% of towns experienced a decline in both population and employment between 2009 and 2019. However, in the North East this figure rises to 14% and, relatively, 90% of towns in the North East and North West had population growth lower than the England and Wales average.
But this data also shows that employment growth and population change have different geographic profiles. Employment growth is lowest in the South West, whereas population growth is lowest in the North East and North West.
In our research we also found very high levels of economic decline in towns in the North East. And we concluded that towns in the South West are particularly vulnerable to employment decline during COVID, with worrying levels of deprivation running along the coastline in this region.
Interestingly, the latest report by EY, analysing economic growth in towns between 2016 and 2019, identifies some slightly different trends. A slowdown in the growth of the financial and IT sectors has resulted in the lowest regional economic growth for towns in the South East. EY point out that that economic and political uncertainties in this period make it hard to draw firm conclusions about whether this pattern constitutes a trend, and conclude that this does not signal a major change in the fortunes of the South in relation to the North in economic terms.
The trends identified by the ONS, which are echoed in own research, are very likely also to be the results of the current pandemic. In 2020 unemployment rose significantly higher in towns than cities while most towns in the South East have not – as yet – experienced significant falls in employment, although this may soon change. If unemployment continues to rise as expected, the distribution of jobs may generate an even greater chasm between the economic fortunes of towns in different parts of Britain.
 Job density is the number of jobs provided in a town divided by its total population.
About the author
Ben Goodair is a Doctoral Researcher in the Department for Social Policy and Intervention at the University of Oxford. Ben's research focuses on evaluating the devolution of healthcare in England and understanding inter and intra-regional health inequalities. Previously, Ben was a Research Assistant at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, Cambridge University, where he worked on the Institute's 'Townscapes Project'. During his time at Cambridge Ben co-authored a number of policy reports assessing the welfare of Britain's towns. Ben holds an MSc in Social Policy (Research) from the London School of Economics and a BA in Politics and Modern History from the University of Manchester.