KPMG began a project with Demos, Britain’s leading cross-party think tank, to explore what people want for the future of their towns. The findings outline the challenges of uniting people in towns behind any particular vision of the future. Demos carried out extensive polling and social media analysis; KPMG sought the views of businesses through regional focus groups. Together this represents a landmark contribution to the debate on the future of the towns. KPMG supports the recommendations set out in the report from Demos.
The findings from the Demos research are clear: towns are divided. Those living in towns are split down the middle over their future, with opposing views on new jobs and new people coming to their town. This division is consistent across all types of towns, from ex-industrial towns to affluent towns. The groups, ‘Early Adopters’ and ‘Preservers’ revealed the following preferences:
- Excited by the prospect of newcomers from cities and other countries,
- worried about the ageing population of many towns,
- demanding more houses be built,
- supportive of jobs of any type coming to their town,
- prioritising private and public amenities above a sense of community, and public transport links into nearby cities above public transport within the town.
- Concerned about the impact of newcomers on the character of their town,
- relaxed about the ageing population,
- more sceptical about housebuilding,
- unconvinced of the merits of new highly paid jobs if they go to people with no prior connection to the town,
- placing a higher priority on a sense of local community and a lower priority on amenities and links to cities.
The findings from the KPMG focus groups revealed that business leaders were not surprised by the results of the survey. But they recognise that tackling divisions is an important first step in towns significantly increasing their inward investment, whether from government or from private sector businesses.
We need a meaningful conversation between residents, businesses and local decision makers. Local communities need to understand the impact of any new investment. Business can also play a role in finding a common vision for towns and demonstrate the multiplier effect they can have on any initial public investment.
The future for towns seems even more uncertain now than it did at the start of this project, before the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic poses existential risks to local businesses in towns across the country, some of which are the lifeblood of their local communities. On the other hand, a shift towards remote working - together with the promise of large-scale investment in towns as part of the government’s “levelling-up” agenda - could be a once-in-a-generation opportunity for towns.
The Demos report contains these recommendations:
- Town leaders must engage their residents and local business leaders in an open, participatory conversation about the future of the high street. This should be informed by relevant economic analysis (see Recommendation 2) to ensure citizens are aware of the trade-offs and costs associated with their desired high street model
- Processes to determine the future of the high street must be informed by a rigorous economic assessment of the potential, or lack thereof, for retail and substitute sectors in that town.
- Central government investment in towns should be conditional on buy-in from the local community and business leaders
- Local governments should look out for and encourage any post-pandemic trends towards investment in their area
- Local governments should help mutual aid groups who wish to establish themselves as more formal organisations (while remaining light touch)
- Further research should be conducted to understand what motivations and values underlie attitudes regarding identity and diversity within towns, and how these can be reconciled.
- Towns leaders should make the social integration of long standing residents and newcomers a priority.
- Further research should be undertaken to understand what types of jobs town residents desire, and what drives opposition to new jobs among some town residents.
- A review should be carried out of the potential for empty high street shops to be converted into homes, appropriately weighing the pros and cons.
- Build support for new homes in towns, with the goal to facilitate an increase in the availability of affordable housing and homes for first time buyer.
- The government should use upcoming planning reform to empower local communities to shape housebuilding decisions in their local area.
- The upcoming Devolution White Paper should, where possible, seek to preserve autonomy for town councils to implement decisions made at a combined authority level in the way they see fit.