- Firstly, with the exception of Yeovil, no town that isn’t within commutable distance of a city has been successful at attracting in high-skilled jobs.
- Secondly, being close to a city is no guarantee of town success. In fact, those towns that are close to struggling cities tend to perform no better than those that are more isolated.
This suggests, somewhat counterintuitively, that the employment outcomes for people in towns are reliant on the performance of their nearest city. And it is the underperformance of these neighbouring cities that explain at least in part of the struggles of some towns.
So what does this mean for the fund? The goal of it should be to improve the employment outcomes of residents of towns, irrespective of where they work. Beyond skills, if it is to have an impact, it should look at improving transport links to the nearest city.
This, of course, will have little impact if the city itself is struggling. And this is why, despite the current interest in towns, the main plank of any domestic policy in a post-Brexit world must be about improving the performance of struggling cities, particularly in the North. This won’t just bring benefits to the people who live in these cities themselves, or to the national economy as a whole. It’ll improve the employment outcomes for people living in the surrounding towns too.
The fundamental question that any fund will need to answer – be it the National Productivity Fund, the Stronger Towns Fund or the Shared Prosperity Fund – is what is the nature of the problem that it is attempting to solve? If the problem is one of inclusion, then it will need to be targeted on the people and places that are currently excluded. If it’s about economic growth, then it needs to note that not everywhere can or should be expected to play the same role in the economy.
The underperformance of the North as a whole is largely down to the poor performance of its cities. And so if we are to see a country that works for everyone addressing this underperformance needs to be agenda item number one.