The Future of Towns

This report by DEMOS sets out to understand what residents want the future of their towns to look like. It touches on the impact of the pandemic but goes deeper, with the aim of unpicking how different attitudes collect together before recommending a series of actions to take which could help build consensus between different groups.

Date added 29 October 2021
Last updated 29 October 2021

This report by DEMOS sets out to understand what residents want the future of their towns to look like. Using the online tool Polis, which allows respondents to interact with each other, DEMOS were able to analyse the views of a nationally representative sample of residents across five different town types; affluent, coastal, ex-industrial, hub-and-spoke and rural.

This town typology is based on the 2011 ONS Local Authority Area Classification and is produced on a cluster analysis of 59 Census statistics. The characteristics of each of the five town types are identified as follows:

  • Affluent towns: towns of this type are more prosperous, older, and less ethnically diverse than average, and are more likely to be found in rural areas.
  • Coastal towns: towns defined by their coastal geography, they tend to be older than average.
  • Ex-Industrial towns: towns whose traditional industries have disappeared. A greater proportion of people here work in manufacturing, but also face problems of unemployment and wider social issues.
  • Rural towns: towns in rural areas that are less well off than affluent towns and do not have a coastline.
  • Hub-and-spoke towns: comparatively urban towns that are often satellite towns of bigger cities, or are hub towns with their own satellites. These towns have higher levels of ethnic diversity.

The results of this research, which surveyed 2,019 respondents, provided a uniquely rich view of public attitudes towards factors which affect their places. In doing so, a clear distinction was identified between two sets of respondents who had diametrically opposing views on what they want the future of their places to look like.

Around half belong to ‘Group A’: excited by the prospect of newcomers from cities and other countries, worried about the ageing population of many towns, demanding more houses be built, supportive of jobs of any type coming to their town, prioritising private and public amenities above a sense of community, and public transport links into nearby cities above public transport within the town.

Around half belong to ‘Group B’: concerned about the impact of newcomers on the character of their town, relaxed about the ageing population, more sceptical about housebuilding, unconvinced of the merits of new highly paid jobs if they go to people with no prior connection to the town, placing a higher priority on a sense of local community and a lower priority on amenities and links to cities.

Group A tended to be slightly younger (23% are aged over 60, compared with 34% of Group B); are more prevalent outside of the south of England (68% are from the South, compared with 77% for Group B); more likely to have voted Remain in the EU referendum (54%), and were evenly split in general election voting intention between the two largest parties in England (36% Conservative, 34% Labour). In contrast, Group B tend to be slightly older, are more likely to live in the south of England, more likely to have voted Leave (51%), and more likely to vote Conservative (43% Conservative, 25% Labour).

Whilst the hypothesis going into this research was that different types of town would have different attitudes to different subject areas, the results showed that people in different types of towns actually share a similar balance of attitudes across the board.

The challenge, therefore, is in finding policies to unite these disparate groups around a shared vision for the future of their towns. Drawing on their findings, DEMOS makes a series of recommendations to progress towards a brighter future for towns, which is informed by meaningful engagement with the people who live there. These include that;

  • Town leaders should engage their residents and local business leaders in an open, participatory conversation about the future of the high street and make the social integration of long standing residents and newcomers a priority.
  • The future of the high street needs to be informed by a rigorous economic assessment of the potential, or lack thereof, for retail in that town and should examine the potential for converting empty high street shops into new homes.
  • Central government should make investment in towns conditional on buy-in from the local community and business leaders, and use upcoming planning reforms to empower local communities to shape housebuilding decisions in their local area.

The report also recommends that further research into attitudes regarding identity and diversity within towns is conducted, as well as what types of jobs town residents desire and what drives opposition to new jobs among some town residents.

Whilst the report notes that there is a genuine risk that high streets in towns continue to deteriorate, creating the conditions for a dangerous downward spiral of under-investment and economic decline, there is also a path to an exciting future. To embrace this future, it requires local government to communicate both inspiring visions and hard truths to businesses and the public, as attempts to preserve the status quo will lead only to decline.

You can read more reports from DEMOS here: