Harnessing the potential of UK towns
It is time to talk about towns, and Visa is working in partnership with the Social Market Foundation to kickstart this conversation.
By Mandy Lamb, Visa Vice President
Half of the UK population lives in towns, and 40% of us work in one1. Towns are communities in which we grow up, raise our children, work, and build our lives. Nationwide lockdowns made us rediscover what our towns mean to us, and, as many of us have shifted to hybrid working, we spend more time in them than ever.
Yet, despite their huge social and economic importance, they are often overlooked in favour of cities when it comes to national policymaking2. Let’s Talk About Towns3– a report by Visa & the Social Market Foundation – aims to change this.
In a study of unmatched scale and depth and conducted in partnership with the Social Market Foundation4 , it analyses nearly 900 UK towns to identify their vitality, using five key indicators. These are economic prosperity, people and skills, infrastructure, business environment and sustainability.
The findings don’t just start a conversation, they give businesses, partners, and policymakers the data and language to talk about the potential of one of the UK’s largest untapped assets.
Breaking down assumptions
The Report reframes the conversation about town vitality by challenging a number of previously held assumptions.
According to the report, for example, the concept of a North-South divide is far too simplistic when talking about vitality. It is, in fact, the South-East that has the largest share of towns with the most opportunity for unleashing growth. Meanwhile, the North-West has a high share of economically vibrant towns.
A ‘towns versus cities’ narrative is equally unhelpful. The study showed that towns actually benefit from the economic halo effect of successful cities. Though there are notable exceptions. These include Cheltenham and Ipswich, which attract high skills and talent, due to the presence of large institutions, such as GCHQ and the University of Suffolk.
One of the most important findings from our research is that places with low economic dynamism can have high levels of life satisfaction. This finding acts as a warning to policymakers that improving a town’s economy should not come at the expense of wellbeing.
Six types of towns
The report states that when it comes to perceived status, it is telling that cities have an official accreditation process, whereas there is no formal definition of towns.
The Report creates a model in which towns can recognise and talk about themselves. It identifies six town archetypes, (shown below), 87% of which have untapped potential.
According to the report, each town type has a unique set of opportunities. For example, Foundation towns (of which there are 91 in the UK) scored above average for infrastructure and business environment but below average for skill levels. To unlock growth, policymakers might therefore focus on training and attracting new outside talent.
Conversely, Heartland towns (21% of UK towns) have above average skill levels but below average infrastructure, which makes it difficult for residents to access non-local jobs. In this case, policymakers might focus on improving transport links or taking advantage of the rise of remote and hybrid working.
The Report also highlights each type of town’s capacity to transition to net zero.
It reveals that Opportunity towns and Heartland towns face the greatest challenges, due to high car dependency and below average infrastructure. Areas of focus for these towns might be to improve public transport or invest in electric vehicle charging infrastructure.
The above examples demonstrate the power of the town typology to dispense with blanket solutions and make more impactful change.
Town vitality is a collaborative conversation
It is not just local or national government that has a say in a town’s future but its inhabitants, workers and businesses. It is the responsibility of service providers, such as Visa, to facilitate the conversation.
To complement this Report, we have launched Let’s Celebrate Towns, a nationwide showcase of the hundreds of towns helping local businesses and communities to thrive, with a significant cash prize on offer for a community project.
In early 2023, the next phase, Let’s Unlock the Potential of Towns, involves a series of policy workshops focusing on driving commerce, entrepreneurship and business-led growth in each of the six town types. In parallel to this, it will engage industry, government, and the third sector. Our goal is consensus and coalition to successfully grow UK towns to their full potential.
For more information, visit: Talk-of-the-Town-Sept-2022.pdf (smf.co.uk)
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The article above represents an overview of the findings of the Report and, unless otherwise stated, all of the research and conclusions set out below are based on those in the Report, further details of which can be found in the Report.
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1 Let’s talk about Towns Report: September 2022 https://www.smf.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/Talk-of-the-Town-Sept-2022.pdf
2 Let’s talk about Towns Report: September 2022 https://www.smf.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/Talk-of-the-Town-Sept-2022.pdf
3 Let’s talk about Towns Report: September 2022 https://www.smf.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/Talk-of-the-Town-Sept-2022.pdf
4 Let’s talk about Towns Report: September 2022 https://www.smf.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/Talk-of-the-Town-Sept-2022.pdf Study by Social Market Foundation, commissioned by Visa. The report analysed nearly 900 towns across the UK.