• Chris Hearld, Author |
3 min read

The shape of post COVID-19 economic growth has the potential to support the prosperity of towns.

So those leading towns and the businesses within them should understand the opportunities and threats to realising this prospect.

The government’s desire to ‘level up’ the country’s economy is arguably towns focused and new working patterns triggered by lockdown will mean more people staying local and working from home. So we can expect an increase in the relative importance of towns and a once-in-a-generation focus on investing in them.

So KPMG has supported research into The Future of Towns, with think-tank Demos which explores this. We found the biggest barrier to the investment that will underpin economic recovery is a split down the middle of most towns about how comfortable their citizens are with change.

Across hugely different types of town, from ex industrial to rural; coastal to hub-and-spoke, we found similar divisions within the population of a town. Broadly half are open to new people coming into their towns, favour building more houses, and are supportive of jobs of any type coming to their town while the other half are concerned about newcomers moving to their area, sceptical about house building and are less supportive of new highly paid jobs coming to their town.

This provides a challenge to local government and businesses with an investment agenda to engage with the public in conversations about building a future for their towns. They will need to solve the divides through an inspiring vision teamed with consideration of necessary trade-offs. For example, to what extent is a desired lively independent high street dependent upon accepting new housing, in order to create the necessary scale of local customers in a world in which so much retail is now online.

In the short term the challenges for local businesses affected by the pandemic are immense, but looking ahead, the contribution that such private enterprises make to their local area, in bringing jobs and helping to grow their economies, cannot be overstated. So we talked to businesses leaders across a collection of the country’s towns about their priorities and concerns and found:

  • Above all else, businesses need long-term certainty on public investment. Why? For business, choosing their location is a long-term investment; in staff, operations and relationships. They aren’t just looking at the here-and-now. Knowing that policies and public investment in local infrastructure won’t be reversed in the future, perhaps as result of electoral decisions, is crucial for strengthening business confidence.
  • Skills matter. Alongside infrastructure, skills will be an increasing priority for business in deciding where to base their operations. And to retain talent, a town must be able to show it can offer a good quality of life – whether that is affordable housing, a vibrant cultural scene, or easy access to local amenities.
  • Business needs to recognise the role it can play in finding a common vision. As local employers, businesses are part of the community and must step up beyond the boundaries of their normal operations. Where the connectivity between a town and its major employers works well the private sector can make a huge difference – to skills, infrastructure and an overall sense of identity and confidence. Over the last decade, particularly in the North of England, I’d say that impact has happened more in the cities. Maybe now the levelling up agenda provides the opportunity for the towns and their major employers to start working together to foster that relationship to mutual benefit.

But it won’t just happen. Towns can be more active in shaping their growth in the next ten years and business will be an important part of that.