The problem of British towns

I’ve resisted blogging about the Labour leadership election in spite of the fact I’m both obsessing about it and deeply conflicted about who to support. To my surprise I’m taking Lisa Nandy very seriously and this is in large part because she seems to be the only candidate to have thought deeply about the profound change underway in British towns and what this means for left politics. As Christina Beatty and Steve Fothergill summarise in their recent LSE Politics piece:

The inevitable consequence of this huge disparity in job growth has been a surge in commuting. In 2010, net commuting out of Britain’s older industrial towns (the balance between flows in each direction) was around 800,000. By 2016 this had risen to 900,000, and by 2019 to over 1 million, equivalent to one-in-seven of all residents in employment in the towns. By contrast, in 2019 Britain’s ten main regional cities had a net commuting inflow of just under 1 million, equivalent to more than a quarter of all the jobs located there. These figures point to a major redefinition of the role of Britain’s older industrial towns. Increasingly, they are becoming places where people live but work elsewhere: they are becoming dormitories for commuters to the big cities. This is very different from their original role as centres of business and population in their own right.

The politics of this are ambiguous. On the one hand, there’s a growing group with vested interest in the  transport infrastructure and a cultural stake in cities. On the other hand, they’re likely to spend large parts of their non-work life getting to work. The nine months I spent commuting from Coventry to London (ironically to edit the blog this piece was published in!) were the most miserable of my life in many ways. My travel was extreme but it’s left me sensitive to the subtly exhausting reality of commuting on a daily basis, as well as what this does to your outlook to the world. Combine this with the growing problems within towns and you have a potentially potent mix of political sentiments.

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