Towns, and their future, have risen up the political agenda, and about time too. From Wick in the north of Scotland to Truro in the south of England, on the UK’s Western and Eastern seaboards, towns are struggling, languishing from years of neglect, surviving only through the grit and determination of their remaining residents.
It’s not only a UK problem. So desperate are the residents of Albinen in Switzerland they are offering £19,000 a head to anyone willing to put down roots in their town. No town in the UK has gone down the Swiss route as far as I know (not least because they will have no spare cash) but without drastic action towns will continue to decline, proud histories will be lost, and populations will feel less rooted in communities they can call their own.
Their decline is understandable. Many of us who mourned the loss of shops on the High Street nevertheless preferred to shop in comfort and headed for the nearest shopping mall. As we sought and bought ever cheaper clothes, Made in England lost its USP.
When the fishing industry declined ties with the sea unravelled as many of the fishermen headed to the oil rigs, attracted by steady money, and often two weeks on and two weeks off. Young people left their towns as traditional industries disappeared, and the factories and pits closed. Further education helped them get better jobs but more often than not far from home, and usually in a city.
According to the new think tank Centre for Towns, launched this week in the House of Commons, a million young people in England and Wales have moved out of small communities over the past 30 years. In Scotland the figures are proportionate as their young people seek opportunities wherever they arise.
While Centre for Towns understand why cities quite rightly receive a good deal of attention they believe equal attention should be paid to the viability and prosperity of our towns. It seems a fair ask. Most people in this country still do not live in cities.
Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, seems to get it. Only last week in Bury he launched a plan to transform “left behind’ town centres in the Greater Manchester region. His
aspirations are ambitious: “Building a new future for towns through higher-density mixed and affordable housing, with local retail and leisure facilities and supported by transport and digital connectivity.”
He understands he can’t do it on his own so has reached out already to housing providers, public and private landowners, developers, community groups and other key stakeholders.
Nowhere in the UK was the stark fall out from globalisation more keenly felt than Paisley on the west of Scotland. Paisley was wealthier than most and thus had further to fall, but fall it did. In
Paisley’s heyday 10,000 people worked in the mills, and J & P Coats, the makers of thread, was the third biggest company in the world.
Now Paisley struggles: one in four of its population is income deprived and one in four of its young people has mental health problems. In some areas, the Scottish Indicators of Multiple
Deprivation believe nearly half of the residents and 30% of the children live in communities of multiple deprivation. Ferguslie Park has been identified as Scotland’s most deprived community.
However, Paisley is fighting back. Firstly, their two-year £6m Tackling Poverty programme with 50 projectsinvolving education, health digital and cultural participation, employability and income advice is already having a proven and profound impact on the lives of local families.
And now it is on the shortlist to be the UK City of Culture in 2021, the impact of which cannot be overestimated. Even reaching the shortlist has given the town a huge boost.
Paisley knows that winning the title will bring huge cultural, social and economic benefits, as did it for Hull and Derry. As the bid process has gathered speed, Paisley has risen to the challenge. Paisley people or ‘Paisley buddies’ as they are known, are finding their voice. They believe they have a chance to change the perception of their town, and they want to take it. No corner of Paisley has remained untouched by the campaign. Even sceptical taxi drivers have come round.
Some ‘Paisley buddies’ are learning for the first time of how much they have to be proud. The town has the highest concentration of magnificent listed buildings in Scotland outside Edinburgh, and more than most places in the UK, and the “internationally significant” treasures housed in the Paisley Museum, including the world’s largest collection of Paisley Pattern shawls, is another example.
If Paisley wins the competition to be City of Culture in 2021, towns everywhere, should rejoice. Small is beautiful, and can be example to us all.