Can we revive Britain’s ‘Rust Belt’?

Sunday 14 October, 14:0015:30, Exhibition Hall 2Place and identity

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In Brexit Britain, much focus has fallen on the divides that cut across generational, educational and class lines. But increasingly it is a new geographical divide that is taking shape – one where voguish metropolitan regions, prosperous urban centres and university towns such as Bristol or Leeds contrast starkly with vast swathes of territory now labelled ‘left-behind Britain’. These are the areas where industrial decline and social and political trends have drawn comparisons with America’s ‘Rust Belt’ states.

The plight of places such as Barnsley, Middlesbrough, Grimsby, Stoke-on-Trent and Mansfield might not feature in the dinner-table discussions of the Westminster Village. But former ports, market towns, coastal resorts and county towns are all wrestling with enormous economic and infrastructural challenges, including the effects of automation, declining train services and poor transport connectivity, a low skills and education base and boarded-up high streets. Notably, geographical divisions have advanced well beyond the old ‘north/south’ divide. Today, towns in Kent or Essex, for example, can no longer rely on proximity to London as a passport to prosperity and often require support just as much as parts of the North East.

Alongside economic decay, social divergence seems to have accelerated. Around the country, ‘left behind’ communities struggle with caring for older populations and with higher levels of people drawing state benefits, using prescription drugs and even committing suicide, all while suffering from a ‘brain drain’, lower levels of skills and educational qualifications and low and even falling life expectancy.

Untangling cause and effect is seldom easy. But where some commentators see the problems as primarily economic, others point to important new cultural and political divisions that have become increasingly pronounced since the vote for Brexit. Some worry that the decline of a strong working-class culture that once provided social infrastructure and a route for workers to self-educate and self-organise will increase the isolation of rust-belt towns. Others suggest that the views of people living in these are becoming increasingly marginalised within the public conversation and even disdained by cultural and political elites in Brussels or Westminster, who seldom share their values or represent their interests and dismiss their anxieties about rapid change. Little wonder that as old political allegiances loosen, and hopes for Brexit lie in doubt, politicians look nervously at large areas of the country that they fear are becoming detached from the mainstream parties and their priorities.

How can we create a new, viable future for those currently trapped in declining cities and towns? Is a solution to let failing towns die and instead boost investment in already successful areas or new cities – encouraging population drift to the hotspots? Is this necessarily a bad thing, or could it amount to a positive assertion that the future could be elsewhere? Or is it still possible to rejuvenate left-behind Britain – and if so, how? Should the focus be economic investment or a social and cultural transformation? Do we need a new urban paradigm, or should we create incentives to save, rebuild and inject new life into these urban areas?