Published on 29 September 2020
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Townscapes: Rural decline and Urban poverty in West Midlands’ Towns

The latest report in our Townscapes series analysing the welfare of British towns focuses on the West Midlands’ townscape. Researcher Ben Goodair comments on some of our main findings, highlighting the policy challenges arising from the different needs of both rural and urban towns in this region.

In our townscapes project, we assess the economic health of towns across Britain, and have published a series of reports looking at how they are doing in different regions. Our latest report focuses on towns in the West Midlands.

Our analysis finds a townscape that is still largely reliant on the local economy. Most of the towns in this region can be defined as ‘working towns’. Few places are primarily home to commuters for the region’s larger metropolitan cities – even towns neighbouring Birmingham.

One of the most notable trends in this area is a cluster of small rural towns that have the most declining economies in it. Towns such as Leek, Newport, Bridgnorth and Cheadle appear locked out of economic growth in the region and represent a ‘type’ of declining town very different from the many deprived ex-industrial and coastal towns in other parts of Britain.

We also locate significant levels of deprivation in more urban and larger towns. Whilst economic decline may be specifically acute in rural parts of the region, there are hotspots of deprivation in more built-up places like Telford, Burton-upon-Trent and Nuneaton. How to stimulate the rural economy, whilst relieving the deprivation in more urban parts of the region should be the priority for the region’s policymakers.

Our analysis also revealed examples of public service aggregation and closure. In Worcester there were significant reductions in the numbers of health-related services between 2011 and 2018. Walk-in centres, maternity services and mental health services have been relocated to the main hospital in this period, closing the previous service locations. Meanwhile towns in Shropshire saw some of their schools close from 2011 onwards after significant cuts were agreed to by the council.

Compared to last year, many more people are claiming income support in the West Midland’s towns as the effects of COVID-19 are taking their toll on local economies. Every town in the West Midlands has a significantly higher claimant rate than this time last year with a cluster of the poorest towns seeing the greatest increases. It is becoming apparent that spatial inequalities are increasing due to COVID-19 and are set to continue along this path unless significant investment is made to reverse this trend soon.

Many of the towns in the region have strong industrial specialisms. For example, Royal Leamington Spa’s gaming industry, tourism offering William Shakespeare exhibits in Stratford-upon-Avon and the breweries in Burton upon Trent. Very little connects these specialisms and they can be historically rooted or modern phenomena. For example high levels of sulphate found naturally in Burton’s water gave their pale ales a unique taste in the 19th century while the ‘silicon spa’ complex has largely snowballed from the success of a single gaming company Codemasters in the late 20th Century. The consequences of these specialisms also vary and the heavily marketed tourist industry in Stratford-upon-Avon is not universally well-received by the local population. The lessons from these industrial specialisations must be that these towns’ long histories interact with, and in some cases shape, their present-day economies. Policymakers need to be acutely aware of each town’s specific strengths which can be very localised, fragile and shifting.

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.

Read ‘Townscapes: West Midlands’. 

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.

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