Ian Lucas MP: The Conservative government is taking wealth, opportunity and services away from towns like Wrexham
Published: Friday 24 August 2018
Most people in the UK live in towns. Most political attention has, however, focussed on cities in recent years. Governments have looked to develop our regions through “City Challenge” schemes, some of which are not open to towns, and political development of regional mayoralties has often excluded consideration of the importance role of towns.
Now, through organisations such as the Centre for Towns and Labour Towns, there is a welcome, developing appreciation of the importance of towns to our communities and our economies up and down the country. The continuing challenges for town centres in a transforming retail environment has brought the issue into sharp focus and different examples of good practice across the UK are helping to begin to address the central issue of what, in the UK today, is the role of our towns and how can we ensure that they prosper?
The Tory Government likes to see itself as representing market towns, small businesses and local communities. The reality, however, is that its policies are shifting wealth, opportunity and services away from towns to cities.
Let me give examples.
The Tories have relentlessly pursued a policy of court closure in recent years. Towns have borne the brunt of the closures. The result is that towns have their role diminished as a centre of civic life, as local people are required to travel to cities to attend court, as witnesses, magistrates and staff, as well as defendants. The closures make it less attractive for smaller legal businesses to provide local services for townspeople and lessen private investment in businesses. The overall result is that there are fewer reasons to travel into our towns, leading to a reduction in town centre spend adding to the difficulties that face our retail sector.
The Tories are also withdrawing good, public sector jobs from our towns. I represent Wrexham, the largest town in North Wales. In recent years, the Tories have closed tax offices across North Wales and, now, in an extraordinary move, are shifting all HMRC jobs in Wrexham to Liverpool and Cardiff city centres, meaning that almost 400 long-term, skilled jobs are being moved away from Wrexham. Again, the status and importance of our towns are diminished by such moves and the spending power in town economies is reduced.
In the context of worsening transport connections, this encourages people to move from towns into cities and we see increasing evidence of younger people leaving towns because opportunities for them are increasingly concentrated in cities.
Unfortunately, other public sector organisations find it difficult to look beyond city centres. The BBC did make the historic and important move to Salford but local BBC radio services in towns are under continual pressure, despite their hugely respected status and local, commercial radio has almost disappeared from outside our largest cities. When Channel 4 looked to relocate its headquarters outside London recently, it restricted its considerations to cities only, notwithstanding the talent that exists in the media sector away from city centres. Chester and Wrexham made a strong bid and were not even given the opportunity to present to Channel 4.
In a world where improving digital connectivity is making information exchange possible for towns in a way that has never existed before, given the right levels of investment in infrastructure, the Tory Government is effectively withdrawing many public services from towns, taking good local jobs with them. This is a failure of imagination by the Tories and is not replicated by many private sector businesses.
In Wrexham, Virgin Media are building a new, digital network without any public, financial support and international businesses such as financial services company DTCC and locally born Moneypenny, offering digital reception services, are investing in the town with high quality private sector jobs.
They tell me that quality of life issues are important to their staff and the appeal of many towns is that they can offer more than our cities in this regard. Towns must be much more assertive in making this case and the Tory Government needs to wake up to the importance of representing all of our country – cities, towns and countryside – in our public sphere. It is wrong to withdraw public services from our towns. Government is an important part of the solution to the challenges our towns face.