Retired couples and a smattering of teenagers bunking off school watch the grey swell of the Channel under a pale winter sky. The gaudy amusement arcades of penny-pushers and flashing gambling machines are almost completely deserted. The bored-looking staff in the ice-cream parlours and takeaways gaze into their phones, waiting for customers.
In his report for the Observer about the influence of a gang in Dawlish, Tom Wall conjures up an image of an ‘ostensibly sleepy West Country town’. However, as shocking as the stories of violence and drugs are in Dawlish, equally fascinating is the portrayal of ‘a seaside resort in February’. What does it mean for a town that “A mile outside town are people riding on horseback as if they’re on the pages of Devon Life, but a mile into town you’ve got the kind of deprivation you see in Plymouth”?
These kinds of stark inequality, and a pattern of long-term economic malaise, figure too in our research on the towns of South West England.
In our townscapes project, we assess what measures of success are important for towns across Britain and have published a series of reports looking at how they are doing in economic terms. Our latest report focuses on the South West of England.
One of the headline findings of our analysis is that deprivation seemed acutely concentrated in the coastal towns of the South West. Eight out of the ten most deprived towns in the South West are situated on, or near, the coastline. Meanwhile the two not found on the coast, Bodmin and Redruth, are both rural towns in Cornwall.
Another key finding in this report is that only 15% of towns in the South West are ‘Residential Towns’ – based on the numbers of jobs per resident located within their town boundary. The three most residential towns – Tidworth, Dursley and Ivybridge - are all very small places in rural settings. In the South West specialist industries are located along the M4 corridor, there is a large tourism sector, and a number of isolated towns that are self-sufficient economically, which together mean that most of its conurbations can be categorised as ‘Working Towns’. Truro’s 1.96 jobs per resident is the highest proportion of any town in Britain. Towns are a key source of much of Cornwall’s commercial and leisure activity but have relatively few residents living in them.
This briefing has also highlighted the impact of a number of different public services being cut or relocated elsewhere. According to Ordnance Survey data, Torquay lost over a hundred of its bus stops in 2017.
This cutting of public services often results in buildings, once the beating heart of a high-street, left vacant as a library closes or a fire station moves out of town. However, it is also the case that many towns in this region are filled with entrepreneurial people developing innovative uses for newly deserted buildings. For example, in the Cornish town Bodmin, a local campaign group, IntoBodmin, formed to make the town’s library into a multi-use community amenity
Comparing this region to others, we find that the South West’s towns are relatively well-off in terms of improvement over time and current levels of deprivation within them. But we suggest too that regional averages have limited meaning for policymakers looking to understand and tackle locally rooted inequalities. Analysis at a more granular scale is necessary for those grappling with some of the challenges associated with towns, and their economies.
The Townscapes project offers a deeper analysis of how towns are faring across the regions of Britain and elsewhere, with a series of reports on regions across Britain. It is run by Professor Michael Kenny with Research Assistant Benjamin Goodair.