When people voted to leave the European Union in 2016 it expressed a clear demand for change. Many felt that the places where they lived had been locked out and left behind by prosperity while they could not see opportunities for them and their families to achieve a better life.
On Monday, the government announced a new £1.6billion Stronger Towns Fund to be spread over seven years – but the lukewarm response has reflected the urgency for much more serious and sustained investment in all the communities that need it. There needs to be investment that people can see and feel, and prosperity that they feel they are a part of.
The announcement reflects the needs of many of our towns, but we need to see far greater ambition in terms of boosting job prospects and living standards throughout the UK. We need a series of significant investments as part of a long-term plan to transform prospects and help the four million people in working poverty in the UK.
The Government’s commitment to deliver on its Shared Prosperity Fund – a manifesto pledge to replace the EU structural funds for economically disadvantaged places – has far more potential. Fully implemented, it could make a much more significant difference to people in places that have been locked out of prosperity. EU Structural Funds are currently worth £2.4billion a year in EU and national match funding.
But we’ve been waiting over a year for the consultation to be published on what the Shared Prosperity Fund should look like, let alone seen any progress on delivering for the places that need it. It’s not just towns that are struggling, rural areas are too and some of the lowest employment and pay is found in cities such as Nottingham, Leicester, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham.
“I’ve done labouring and warehouse work, manual labour most of my life … work with bricklayers, joiners, different trades. Warehouses, packing … I’d prefer to … have a decent wage. I’ve never had secure employment. The longest I’ve worked is about three months max. There have been big stretches of unemployment, like years – two years.”
At JRF we root our work in the experiences of people in poverty, and as this man describes too often work provides an income but fails to deliver the security that enables people to build a better life. In parts of the UK this is sometimes all that is effectively on offer. While the country overall has a great story to tell on employment some people are locked out of this success because of where they live, with some places reporting employment rates over ten percentage points behind the average.
The Government has emphasised that both the Stronger Towns Fund and SPF will focus on closing productivity gaps – but this must be done in a way that delivers inclusive growth. That means growing the economy and creating jobs for those locked out of the labour market, making sure people have skills to get on at work, and improving firm performance in low pay sectors like hospitality and retail.
HuffPost’s joint investigation with The Bureau of Investigative Journalism into local authority selloffs, especially those being used to fund redundancies and cuts, demonstrates how these economic challenges can be compounded, leaving places with a sense of decline. Where towns, cities and rural areas lose jobs, services and their sense of purpose, people can be swept into poverty of every kind.
Living without secure employment means living without the ability to save or plan – one of the burning injustices which the Prime Minister pledged to tackle on taking office. It is absolutely right that we look at how to help communities around the country – whether it is Wigan, Bassetlaw or Doncaster. But the way forward must solve deeper problems than the parliamentary conundrum which currently faces the Prime Minister.
It is essential that the pledged funding via the Shared Prosperity Fund is based on need, as the communities secretary James Brokenshire pledged the new Stronger Towns Fund would be. Funding needs to recognise the real experience of economic challenges facing towns and cities across the UK, as highlighted in the HuffPost investigation.
People around the UK need to know how this wrong is going to be righted through the Brexit process and beyond. Implementing the Shared Prosperity Fund needs to be the priority for beginning to shape a new deal.
If the Government is serious about transforming towns, and anywhere else people are not enjoying the opportunities or living standards prosperity brings, it needs to bring serious money to the table. A small pot to fix short-term problems is not ambitious enough and may fail to solve the conundrums of either local prosperity or parliamentary arithmetic.
Campbell Robb is the chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation