Britain’s left behind towns sent two seismic shockwaves through the political consensus in recent years. First, when many voted to leave the EU. Second when the so called ‘Red Wall’ of Labour seats crumbled at the 2019 General Election.

These changes sparked debate about how the Government should support these so-called ‘forgotten’ towns to reverse decades of decline.

Some argue that the Brexit vote and fall of the Red Wall was the result of people in towns registering unhappiness at the perceived favouring of cities by policy makers. This is an unhelpful argument that benefits neither towns nor cities, and risks fuelling a culture war between the two.

The reality is that towns are not islands, their fortunes are connected both to the national economy and also to nearby cities. In fact many towns, particularly those in the South East, perform very well economically.

What is the economic link between towns and cities?

People living in towns close to cities have better employment outcomes than those in rural areas. They benefit from both jobs in the city and those created in the town itself due to its proximity to the city.

But this is only part of the picture. Employment outcomes in towns surrounding economically weaker cities such as Liverpool, Swansea and Newport are far worse than in towns surrounding more prosperous cities such as London or Bristol.

Any economic policy that aims to support towns without considering how their closest cities are performing is doomed to fail.

However, successful cities do not automatically suck jobs and investment away from towns. Towns close to highly productive cities are better at attracting high-skilled business investment, jobs and firms, and they have lower employment rates.

In contrast, towns close to less successful cities have higher unemployment rates and lower economic outcomes. Therefore, the economic success of Britain’s cities is closely linked to the success of the whole country.

Levelling up towns

Latest analysis on why strong cities are crucial for levelling up towns.

How can we improve the fortunes of both towns and cities?

  • Improve skill levels in both towns and cities across the country. Equipping people with the right skills then gives them the tools to participate in the economy, and increases the pool of skills and workers available to businesses.
  • Make cities more attractive to high skilled businesses. This will benefit both cities and towns due to the economic links set out above.
  • Improve transport connections between towns and cities – where appropriate. These connections are crucial in allowing town residents to access jobs in cities.
  • Devolve power away from Westminster

Towns and cities

The economic prospects of towns and cities around the UK are inseparable. Our work looks at the 63 largest cities and towns in the UK, while shedding new light on how the success of cities affects the prosperity of towns that surround them.

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