Towns built on coal in the North East have decaying foundations. The mines were shut long ago but recent reforms to public service provision mean that a similar fate may be transpiring for the services and infrastructure which are integral to these communities.
Ashington, a town that grew rapidly in the response to the demand for coal and introduced the world to the pitmen painters and the Charlton brothers, has fewer GPs, bus stops, health services and schools in 2018 than it did in 2011.
As towns’ local economies, high streets and population levels continue to decline relative to prospering cities: what has become of the schools that educated Lee Hall, the hospitals that would have been ready to patch up Steph Houghton or the libraries frequented by Emily Davison?
In the new Townscapes project we are launching at the Bennett Institute, we are publishing a series of papers which analyse the fortunes of towns across Britain’s major regions and nations. And our analysis draws upon data relating to public service provision, economic outcomes and demographic changes.
Our first report in this series is on the North East of England. It speaks to an emerging policy debate about towns, and how to tackle the challenges of the ‘left behind’. The current government has just announced the first 100 towns that will benefit from its ‘Towns Fund’, the decline of the high street has been debated at both Party conferences and writers and journalists have drawn attention to the worsening prospects of many of Britain’s towns.
One of the headline findings of our data analysis is that towns in the North East are doing much worse than other parts of Britain, and this is apparent in their economic outcomes, rates of growth and levels of public service provision.
Most of the towns in the North East have experienced faster economic and demographic decline than the average town in Britain. Moreover, about two thirds of the region’s towns have more household deprivation than the average town. In Peterlee, over 70% of households have at least one form of educational, employment, housing or health deprivation.
These poor economic outcomes of many towns are paralleled by telling differences to the numbers of public services. Compared to towns in other British regions, the North East’s towns have fewer nurseries and after-school clubs, but more Job Centres and police stations. The towns of the region appear fairly well equipped to deal with crime and unemployment but less well prepared to support families’ childcare needs.
One of the most striking findings of all our analyses is that those towns at greater distance from their nearest city are more likely to develop more independent local economies – with more jobs and services per resident in them. This is also true for the North East. The towns surrounding the large cities of the region such as Guisborough, Yarm and Seaham, have some of the lowest numbers of jobs per resident. In the region that first introduced rail transport to the country, connectivity does not yet appear to be benefitting many dwellers in the region’s towns.
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 the UK. It is run by Professor Michael Kenny with Research Assistant Benjamin Goodair.