Four times a year, figures outlining the country’s economic performance are published. Sometimes the bulletins bring good news, sometimes they bring bad news, yet national measures matter little when they seem out of step with local circumstance. In Sheffield, for instance, the economy has in recent years had a similar trajectory to Greece’s. Questions of national GDP are of little significance in a place that has faced a decade-long recession.
As we enter a period of major change to our political and economic model, a stronger emphasis on the changing sizes and shapes of communities is required by policymakers and politicians. To begin to fill this gap, and support those helping to lead communities through changing times, Localis, a think tank where I lead the research team, were commissioned by Local Trust to produce research showing how communities are changing. The aim was to gauge the strengths and vulnerabilities of typical communities across England.
The research provides a national picture then focuses on three case study communities (market and new towns, the urban north and rural areas). Each case study finds places moving in different directions at different, sometimes alarming, speeds. There are lessons for communities across England.
What we found
Nationally, we see a country where movement of people is an ever-important fixture of economies and society. The number of moves made by residents is gradually increasing to around three-million per year. The number of moves made by people into and out of the country is flat lining at around one-million, though we can expect this to drop as government establishes its new migration framework. Unemployment is relatively low in comparison to other EU countries, but wage growth is much weaker.
Market and new towns
For market and new town communities, the key theme is a successful economy but associated growing pains too. More and more people are choosing to live in market and new towns (particularly over-30s) and standards of education are high and fast-improving. However they are also haemorrhaging young people to other parts of the country at an ever-quicker rate. The population is increasingly transient and, most concerning, rates of homelessness remain stubbornly high showing no signs of reducing.
Communities in the urban north face a much different set of challenges. The presence of a large number of universities means communities have attracted young people from across the country. They also have a relatively low cost of living. However, urban north communities are beset by weak economies and weak personal finances. They recovered slowest from the recession and have high rates of poverty and deprivation. They have lagged other parts of the country in levels of disposable income by several thousand pounds and, worryingly, they are also most indebted. All this suggests urban north communities will be most impacted by future interest rate rises and recession.
For rural communities, the research shows a number of distinct issues. Starting positively, rural communities report themselves to be the happiest in England. They also live longest. However, although happy and healthy, England’s looming demographic time bomb – its ageing population – will be felt most acutely in rural areas. This represents significant challenges to existing industries and also local authorities. As its working population decreases, so do its local taxpayers. Further, many rural economies are dependent on agriculture and many agricultural labourers are young EU migrants who are likely to be impacted by a post-Brexit migration policy.
*To show how communities are changing in market and new towns, the urban north; and, rural areas, we constructed typical communities. They are fictional and a proxy unit of analysis; intended to show average change across these kinds of places in England. They have been named and characterised as follows.