But our towns still have strong communities, unique heritage to be proud of and some great places to live. Those strengths and talents are too often being ignored. That’s why our Labour Towns Group is arguing for new investment, new powers and a fair deal for our towns.
Over the last 10 years, Yorkshire towns have lost buses, shops, sports centres, libraries, neighbourhood police, NHS services, magistrates courts and Sure Start centres.
Recent OCSI (Oxford Consultants for Social Inclusion) research shows that more than half the areas most heavily hit by cuts to public services and family support are in Northern and Midlands towns.
We’ve had a double whammy. First the Tories have cut public service budgets so heavily that some services have had to close altogether. Second, unfair cost comparisons are being made between public services in cities and towns and then used to close town services down.
In Pontefract, health bosses have been trying to close our maternity unit and make everyone travel to Wakefield instead. Clinicians who haven’t been to Pontefract or talked to local mothers say it’s cheaper to provide larger services in bigger centres and that mums can easily travel for an extra half an hour.
But for lots of parents it takes a lot longer than that to get into Pinderfields and it’s even worse if you don’t have a car, the buses don’t run, and the taxis are expensive. That’s why we are campaigning to keep it open. Why should our towns keep losing local services because they don’t have the same economies of scale as big city services?
Yet, instead of an industrial policy to support towns, Conservative government policies on infrastructure are making things worse. Transport investment is focused on London and on HS2. Yet our Northern towns still have to put up with old, rattling Pacer trains. Meanwhile local bus services have been cut by £1.3bn so we’ve lost 3,000 bus routes that people depend on to get them to work, to the shops, to hospital or to school.
The Tories have only just woken up to the issues faced by towns as a general election looms. But their promised Towns Fund doesn’t go nearly far enough, doesn’t reverse austerity and doesn’t help most towns. The fund is mainly aimed at marginal seats and it’s still a top down plan where power and decisions stay in Whitehall. And they offer nothing to tackle the deeper causes of the growing divide between cities and towns.
Labour plans to end austerity are at the heart of a new approach that should bring investment, jobs, services and opportunities back into towns. Already the party has a plan to rejuvenate town centres, including banning ATM charges and protecting banks and post offices from closure and reversing the cuts to bus routes. An overhaul of business rates to help town centre shops is crucial, and there are great measures like free public wi-fi in town centres.
But we’ve also set up a Labour Towns Group of MPs, councillors and campaigners which is putting forward new ideas. There has to be more radical devolution of power out of London – local people need more power to make decisions about the services that they rely on every day.
We need a proper industrial strategy for towns backed by substantial new investment for regeneration and renewal to be devolved for councils and local people to decide. Transport for the North have earmarked £39bn for Northern Powerhouse Rail over the next 20 years with great plans to connect Northern cities. But where do the towns fit in? We need more trains and more carriages each year. Transport for the North should draw up a specific Towns Plan and other regions should show they are doing the same.
It’s also time for a public service guarantee, ensuring that every town has important services from libraries to sports facilities, NHS to policing.
And we’ve got to celebrate our towns too. That’s why one of our first campaigns has been to set up a Town of Culture award as a badge of pride for towns rich with cultural heritage. The divides across our country are growing. Yet we need strong cities and strong towns for us all to thrive. It’s time to stand up for our towns.
Yvette Cooper is the Labour MP for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford.