The election results last week – and specifically the defeats for Labour across former strongholds, the ‘traditional heartlands’ – have pushed the issue of towns further up the national agenda. This comes three and a half years on from Brexit – an event which, for many, highlighted the distinction between cosmopolitan Britain and other parts of the UK.

In particular Lisa Nandy MP – who wrote the foreword to our Fear, Hope and Loss report in 2018 – has actively championed the importance of reconnecting with towns in the last few days. But even before December 12th there was an increasing awareness of the challenges faced in this area. Adrian Chiles wrote eloquently in October about the issue, and at the start of 2019 the government announced its £1.6bn Stronger Towns fund. 

Creating a more optimistic and confident future for Britain’s towns has increasingly become a priority for our work at HNH Charitable Trust. As Fear, Hope and Loss illustrated, many towns – especially those where a manufacturing base has left or the tourism industry departed – have become vulnerable to far right extremism. Economic decline often goes hand-in-hand with hostility to communities arriving from outside.

Our new Hopeful Towns project is looking to get to the nub of this. We want to work with local people to come up with practical ideas which can stop divisive narratives taking hold in the first place. And we want to promote policies which are specific to – and which champion the fundamental value of – Britain’s towns.

One danger, as the discussion about towns develops, is that the word becomes a throwaway term – a new shorthand for ‘left behind’. This risks attributing a victim status to towns, or treating them as a homogenous group – and, therefore, succumbing to the very pitfall which the towns agenda wishes to address.

The national focus on towns must do the opposite, stressing both the basic equality between different sorts of settlement, and the distinct character of each place.

The nuanced differences become evident as soon as you scratch the surface of research into towns. The below chart, for instance, is based on categorisations by our partners at the Centre For Towns. It lines up every place which is smaller than a Core City, within set population brackets – right down to villages with 100 residents.

Immediately we can see the vast disparities in the sizes of places which fall under the towns umbrella. And we can see the big differences in the number of settlements in each size grouping.

Meanwhile the next chart shows the six types identified by the Centre For Towns taxonomy. These are Market towns, University towns, Coastal towns, Commuter towns, Ex-industrial towns and New towns. The chart shows how many there are of each type – and breaks this down further, by size. We can see the high number of small market towns in the UK – places like Cheadle, Tring, and Ludlow.

We already know that some places are more likely to have certain attitudes to immigration. The chart below is taken from the research behind Fear, Hope and Loss. It shows whether types of town over- or under-index when it comes to the proportion of their population with pro-migrant, ‘Confident Multicultural’ values. These attitudes are particularly rare in ex-industrial, medium-sized towns.

Beyond this, of course, there are other, subtler differences between the respective town categories and within them.

Some anecdotal evidence suggests that New Towns have a different, more positive relationship with migration than comparable towns in other categories – because everyone living in the area was, within the space of a generation or two, a newcomer themselves.

Likewise, there are marked differences between the political history of ex-industrial areas and that of coastal towns. This potentially means different sorts of narratives emerging, and different types of cohesion risk.

Regionally, there are divergences too. Approaches and policies which work in a small market town in Kent, for instance, may have a different impact in a small market town in north Wales.

The Hopeful Towns project is an attempt to test these hypotheses and to build a network of smaller settlements which work together. Starting out in three pilot areas, we want to identify policies and strategies which will work in different places – to help reduce tensions and to make it harder for anti-inclusive narratives to take hold.

It is early days on the project. But the more we stress that every town is different and every town matters, the better we can do this.

- Chris Clarke, HOPE not hate Charitable Trust