First it was regions, then cities; now could towns be the focus of government support to help close the North South divide?
The last Labour government, rightly in my opinion, put its faith in regions to revive the North. The Regional Development Agencies, Northern Way and Government Offices in Manchester, Newcastle and Leeds were visible signs that Whitehall didn’t control everything. It was intended that these organisations would be made democratically accountable by elected assemblies. That idea was defeated by the first stirrings of populism that is now rampant. Their cry was against “too much government”, ignoring the fact that, alongside assemblies, the plan was to abolish hundreds of politicians by scrapping 2 tier local government.
In 2010 the Coalition government abolished all regional structures sending a clear message to “left behind” communities in the North
By 2015 the Chancellor, George Osborne, had repented somewhat and set up the Northern Powerhouse. It was aimed at linking up the cities of the North. Manchester Council developed an unlikely bond with the Tory Chancellor, emphasising the city focus of the Northern Powerhouse.
But in 2016 many of the towns surrounding northern cities voted to leave the European Union. It was as much a protest at the way the cities were prospering while the towns were dying, as anything to do with the EU whose regional funds tried to spread benefits.
Lisa Nandy was one of the first politicians to take up the cause of towns, a policy the Wigan MP is pursuing in her Labour leadership campaign.
Meanwhile the Chief Executive of her local authority, Alison McKenzie-Folan spoke at a Downtown event this week and inspired our guests with her vision for the town. She has no problem with Wigan being a town, she believes such communities have an important and different proposition to put compared to cities. Wigan Council aims to be everywhere in the borough supporting businesses, backing culture, emphasising good transport links and preparing the community for the challenges of a decade ahead. The famous Wigan Pier is due to reopen soon.
The business support consists of access to training, planning assistance, networking and skills. As a result, relations with most businesses are good, but one detected a feeling that Wigan’s biggest employer, Heinz, could be more engaged with community. Low paid, low skilled jobs are a problem along with the need to retain young people once they have qualified.
The CEO addressed the political shock of Leigh voting in a Conservative MP for the first time in a century. McKenzie-Folan hinted that the new political trend might also show up in the local elections. In the past Leigh has felt the poor relation of Wigan, but the council had initiated a drive to reach out to all eleven communities that make up the borough.
Wigan is part of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority which is currently struggling with its strategy for new housing. The CEO acknowledged the tension between the public’s agreement that more houses were needed whilst objecting if the development was anywhere near them.
Downtown members were left with the impression that if the government are looking for town partners to deliver their devolution strategy, then Wigan is right up there.