Handing back power to towns

The EU Referendum result was a political earthquake that should have shaken Westminster and Whitehall out of its unthinking complacency. But instead of addressing the underlying conditions which have fuelled not only Brexit, but the rise of populist movements and the advent of strongman politics across the world, we have reverted to type, content to deepen our divisions rather than bring people together.

This week new research from Hope Not Hate and the Centre for Towns refreshingly sought to listen and not lecture those leave voters in areas where fear and anger have replaced hope. The findings are stark. In Britain, as elsewhere, decades of rigid economic dogma have left many communities feeling excluded from an economy which appears to benefit other people, abandoned by mainstream politics and angry about it. They can no longer be ignored.

The report provides the most comprehensive evidence yet that in communities where decades of neglect and deprivation have been felt the hardest, anger is at its most intense. Brexit provided a megaphone for that anger to be broadcast right into the heart of Westminster. Is anyone listening?

The story it reveals is one of loss. Over many decades, the decline of manufacturing industry and decisions by successive governments of all political parties to concentrate investment and opportunity in the cities has aged our towns. It has left many of those communities with a perfect storm of high deprivation, crumbling infrastructure, a dwindling skills base and high levels of dissatisfaction with the status quo.

The loss of good jobs has split families and denied people the agency they demand in order to build a better life, with work that provides dignity and purpose, security and hope for the future. Rapid economic decline has rendered many people utterly unable to adapt to changed circumstance. While unsurprisingly the most negative attitudes to immigration, multiculturalism and diversity are found in such communities, so too are some of the most robust responses to it. There is a belief that nobody is fighting for their social and economic interests.

Not that these are solely economic challenges; far from it. Communities across the United Kingdom, as this report outlines, display the outward signs of an overwhelming sense of displacement, powerlessness and loss; most starkly in our post-industrial and coastal towns. Take the East Marsh area of Grimsby: once a thriving fishing community, it has experienced among the highest levels of relative decline in the UK. Those young people who could, grasped the opportunities opened up to them and left. Those who remain are among the most disengaged in the country according to one 2011 study. No wonder that in such communities, marginalised and facing a plethora of challenges, “take back control” had such resonance.

The report describes the emergence of two distinct tribes, divided between hope and fear. This is what the academics Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker described as the “Two Englands” revealed by Brexit. In our cities, often cited as the engines of economic growth, “confident multiculturals” see immigration as overwhelmingly positive while in towns only a few miles away, the picture is turned on its head. The effect has been the transformation of the electoral map.

The report exposes what happens when choices are made between these Two Englands, when you allow the collapse, not just of jobs and spending power, but of any sense of hope in those communities unable to adapt whilst rewarding and empowering those cities already well-placed to benefit. The stark warning is that a widespread sense of hopelessness, left ignored and unaddressed, provides fertile ground for the far right. But more importantly, this report provides a template for understanding how addressing the underlying conditions can turn this around.

And there is hope to be found. On the East Marsh estate in Grimsby residents formed a community group, East Marsh United, in the belief that if change is coming, they must build it. For all of the challenges they face there is power in these communities. But for it to be felt, politics must change. Our job is to create a catalyst for that power in East Marsh and elsewhere. The widespread anger has arisen from a knowledge that life could and should be better in areas where people long to “take back control” but are denied the power and resources to do so.

Anger is not apathy. People rightly demand and deserve a greater say in the future of their community and country and the power to build the ambitious, inclusive communities they long for. Our task is to match their ambition with a vision for every part of the UK that delivers on the priorities in those communities. In the end a remote power, distant from the lives it presumes to understand has stripped people of agency in their own lives. This is the great lesson for politics that we must urgently address. This report is deeply challenging the status quo and matters all the more for it. It connects up historic economic decline with a loss of agency and control by people in our towns. The far right offers no answer to this. We must.

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