The government wants to ‘build back better’ after Covid-19. Central to these plans are a desire to ‘level up’ the country’s economy, with a particular focus on towns. However, our research with KPMG finds that towns are split down the middle over whether they want change.

Our research with KPMG finds that just over half of people living in towns (52%) in England are part of a group concerned about newcomers moving to their area, sceptical about house building and are less supportive of new highly paid jobs coming to their town. A directly opposing group (48%) of people in towns are more likely to be open to new people coming into their towns, favour building more houses, and are supportive of jobs of any type coming to their town.

We started this project in the early months of 2020, with the aim to get under the skin of what people in towns want the future of their towns to look like. Our findings outline the challenges of uniting people in towns behind any particular vision of the future.

The future for towns seems even more uncertain now than it did before the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic poses existential risks to local businesses in towns across the country, some of which are the lifeblood of their local communities. On the other hand, a shift towards remote working – together with the promise of large-scale investment in towns as part of the government’s “levelling-up” agenda – could be a once-in-a-generation opportunity for towns.

The research shows that towns are complex and largely misunderstood, with the same patterns in attitudes consistent across all types of towns in England, from ex-industrial towns to affluent towns. 

Demos is calling for local government to engage both the public and businesses in conversations about the future of their towns, to solve the divide and build inspiring visions.

The report’s recommendations include:

  • Town leaders to engage their residents and local business leaders in an open, participatory conversation about the future of the high street.
  • Ex-industrial towns to be a priority for investment.
  • Central government investment in towns to be conditional on buy-in​ ​from the local community and business leaders.

Commenting on the findings, Harry Carr, Director of Research and Innovation at Demos and co-author of The Future of Towns, said:

“The Government has set out the first steps of their vision to build back better from the Covid-19 crisis, including ‘levelling-up’ our towns. But our research finds that people in English towns are split down the middle on the future of their town – with attitudes to jobs and newcomers one of the key dividing lines. This could present a significant barrier and challenge for the government, as well as business, in meeting their Covid-19 recovery and levelling-up goals.

“However, there are signs of hope. While the division is real, people in towns already agree on some important issues, from renewing our high streets to tackling homelessness. Towns have the opportunity to be trailblazers for a new kind of decision-making – one that the nation could learn from to heal national divides and make economic progress. To do this, local leaders must bring their communities together for an open, honest conversation about the future.”

Read the full report here.