A practical guide to policy for towns

This report by Metro Dynamic offers practical guidance to help people take action to shape the local economy of their towns, as well as help policy makers build a long-term approach that is designed to support and improve a large number of different places.

Date added 6 October 2021
Last updated 6 October 2021

Whilst many modern-day cities are centers of global trade and innovation, growing in population and with rising wealth, our towns are where more than half the population lives. In this report, Metro Dynamics brings together a series of research projects to examine what makes some towns outperform UK averages on economic and social metrics and others not.

While the available data shows us that we can think about towns in terms of being key workplaces or not, having complex economies of their own or not, and benefiting from proximity to growing cities or not, it doesn’t tell us much about what a town should do to boost its economy. In order to aid this, Metro Dynamics present eight key principles they have developed to act as a foundational argument when thinking about future economies.

These eight principles are aimed at creating long-term projects with short-term payoffs and are summarised as follows.

  1. Every town should embrace its own identity and local relationships
  2. Social investment in people should be the basis of a more inclusive local economy and growth
  3. Towns should aspire to be the best places to live
  4. Towns need to think differently about their town centres
  5. Towns need to secure quick wins and commit to long-term transformation
  6. Local leadership and decision-making capacity are key to success
  7. Strategic use of procurement can strengthen local institutions and promote community wealth building
  8. Town futures should be shaped with and by local people

In Chapter 2, Metro Dynamics examine town types in more detail by presenting a typology which is based on the Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) built-up area methodology. Of the 1,087 places included in their analysis, 62% are classed as small towns, 25% as a medium towns and 11% as a large towns. They note that, whilst no two towns are quite the same, the average employment and population growth for towns has been lower than the overall England and Wales figure.

The report goes on to explore these figures using their own research, as well as data from the ONS and the Centre for Cities. The ONS analysis shows that workplace towns are more likely to experience population growth and employment growth than residential towns, whilst the Centre for Cities analysis concludes that a continued focus on cities, particularly on those that underperform, will be an important part of improving the outcomes for people who live in towns.

However, the report also notes that success for towns is not guaranteed on the basis of proximity to a city alone, as most are surrounded by towns with varying productivity and employment outcomes. Other factors are also at play, including the skills and education base of a town’s residents. To enjoy economic success, Metro Dynamics state that location is not enough and that a town’s residents must be equipped with the necessary level of skills and education required to participate in the nearby city’s economy.

In Chapter 3, the report argues that, in order to change a town, you first need to understand its identity, because this identity will determine what interventions are possible. This is because, the report states, most change happens at the margins, that is to say: you cannot simply rebase a town economically and socially.

Whilst many towns can and should figure out how to rethink their identity, find ways of becoming attractive for employers, and promote the town as a great place to live, the report states that there are many towns, particularly those in less complex economies, or remote from one, which have a much more complex challenge of renewal. For these towns, Metro Dynamics state that a focus on improving education and access to health services, with a focus on preventative and mental health, is the necessary long-term change that many towns should be pursuing as the foundation for growing prosperous local economies.

Following this, a series of case studies are highlighted which explore innovative approaches to local employment, tax incentives and business networking organisations in more detail. These include Blackpool’s ‘Pride of Place’ partnership, which brought together the local business community, voluntary sector and public sector to create a collective vision for the future of Blackpool, the ‘Preston’ model, which embedded community wealth building within the council’s programme of procurement, and the ‘Wigan Deal’, which committed both the local council and residents to a series of pledges to improve their towns.

The report concludes with some specific recommendations for policy makers and leaders in towns, which is based on the concept of empowering local leaders, local communities and local businesses to shape their own destiny.