UK (University of Southampton) Getting policymakers to focus on England’s left-behind towns

The issues left-behind towns face are front and centre after University politics professors prompted a new way of collecting data.

A gap in understanding how coastal and former industrial towns were doing was filled by professors Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker.

Discovering how the places people live in were shaping their politics

Labour frontbench politician Lisa Nandy made a post-Brexit vote speech about the political neglect of towns she said “made a real splash among MPs”. This was because it provided a way “to interpret the trends that they had been trying to understand for some time”.

Her speech was based on Will and Gerry’s analysis that the fortunes and attitudes of coastal and former industrial towns were increasingly departing from those of the rest of England.

Politicians welcomed the new evidence on towns. Policymakers “rarely look at the actual geography that defines people’s lives,” Labour MP Yvette Cooper said at the time.

Will and Gerry had found evidence that the places people live in were increasingly shaping their political views. They now had the opportunity to use data to put policymakers’ focus on places that felt left-behind.

There are huge benefits of constructing datasets that allow analysis to be done that can influence policy.

Associate Dean Research & Enterprise

Using data to draw more attention to towns’ decline

Lisa and the two professors agreed that cities enjoyed a strong policy focus, driven by evidence from think-tanks such as the Centre for Cities. The decline of many English towns was not getting the same attention, they felt.

That is the reason why Will and Lisa set up a think-tank with political data analyst Ian Warren in a bid to change this.

This think-tank, the Centre for Towns, put different places in England into categories by size of settlement to understand differences in attitudes. “There are huge benefits of constructing datasets that allow analysis to be done that can influence policy,” according to Will.

Its first study after it launched in 2017 showed people in towns were much more likely than people in cities to feel politicians didn’t care about them.

Many media reports and MPs’ debates referenced such fresh evidence from the new think-tank. Soon, the Government would respond.

A greater Government focus on policies that affect towns

The Government laid plans for funding for declining towns in the run-up to the last General Election. Targeted funding would follow Will and Gerry’s data pinpointing the different fortunes and attitudes of these towns.

Policymakers will also be able to track how the £3.6bn Towns Fund and other policies are felt in the towns that feel left behind. This is thanks to the typology of places the Centre for Towns developed.

The House of Commons Library has adopted a new official geographical classification of constituencies based on how the Centre for Towns categorised places. The Office for National Statistics, meanwhile, has introduced a prototype urban settlement size classification.

These changes mean the divide that Will and Gerry discovered for policymakers will remain central to UK politics.

Will and Gerry are now researching what affects trust in politics.