Divided towns pose barrier to the government’s post-Covid recovery plans, shows new report

Divided towns pose barrier to the government’s

New report from Demos finds that towns are split down the middle over their future, with opposing views on new jobs and new people coming to their town.

  • The division is consistent across all types of towns in England, from ex-industrial towns to affluent towns.
  • Demos is calling on town leaders to take action to unite residents around a vision for the future.

The government wants to ‘build back better’ after Covid-19. Central to these plans are a desire to ‘level up’ the country’s economy, with a particular focus on towns. However, new research from cross-party think tank Demos and KPMG has found that towns in England are split down the middle over whether they want change, which could present a barrier to the government’s plans.

The research, using an online deliberative method to poll 2,019 nationally representative  adults, found that just over half of people living in towns (52%) are part of a group concerned about newcomers moving to their area, sceptical about house building and are less supportive of new highly paid jobs coming to their town. A directly opposing group (48%) of people in towns are more likely to be open to new people coming into their towns, favour building more houses, and are supportive of jobs of any type coming to their town.

This also presents a challenge to businesses, who the report found want to see long term certainty and investment decisions being made beyond a single electoral cycle, in order to build trust to invest in towns.

The Future of Towns is written in the context of the opportunity Covid provides to revive towns. In the short term, clear challenges remain for local businesses affected by the pandemic, and the economic contribution that many of these businesses make to their local area cannot be overstated. Yet the displacement caused by Covid, with more people staying local and working from home, may well increase the importance of towns and encourage a shift in amenities towards towns rather than cities. That presents a real opportunity to have a once-in-a-generation shift in investment towards areas that have often been neglected.

The report shows that divisions within towns are often reflective of divisions nationwide, meaning there is an opportunity for towns to show the way forward and set an example in tackling national divides to make economic progress.

Demos is calling for local government to engage both the public and businesses in conversations about the future of their towns, to solve the divide and build inspiring visions, whilst being realistic about the challenges ahead.

There are areas of consensus that can be used as the start of a conversation about building a better future for towns.​ People are agreed on ​prioritising issues such as litter and graffiti, anti-social behaviour, and homelessness. They also want a​ traditional high street ​with independent shops, and proximity to green spaces​ treated as a priority.

The report is also calling for:

  • Town leaders to engage their residents and local business leaders in an open, participatory conversation about the future of the high street.
  • Ex-industrial towns to be a priority for investment.
  • Central government investment in towns to be conditional on buy-in​ ​from the local community and business leaders.

Commenting on the findings, Harry Carr, Director of Research and Innovation at Demos and co-author of The Future of Towns, said:


“The Government has set out the first steps of their vision to build back better from the Covid-19 crisis, including ‘levelling-up’ our towns. But our research finds that people in English towns are split down the middle on the future of their town - with attitudes to jobs and newcomers one of the key dividing lines. This could present a significant barrier and challenge for the government, as well as business, in meeting their Covid-19 recovery and levelling-up goals.

“However, there are signs of hope. While the division is real, people in towns already agree on some important issues, from renewing our high streets to tackling homelessness. Towns have the opportunity to be trailblazers for a new kind of decision-making - one that the nation could learn from to heal national divides and make economic progress. To do this, local leaders must bring their communities together for an open, honest conversation about the future.”

Discussing the business perspective, Mark Essex, Director of Skills at KPMG, said:

“In order to commit to plans to locate or expand in an area, business leaders need to know that promises of public investment will translate into improvements over multiple years, beyond a single electoral cycle, particularly on skills, digital infrastructure, and housing. 

“It is critical that those leading our towns resolve the divisions within their electorate to avoid either paralysis or continual reversals in public policy that deter business investment. We believe achieving this means talking trade-offs. For example, an independent high street requires footfall and residents with disposable income, which in turn means attracting economically active newcomers and housing to a place.”






Researchers recruited over 2,019 respondents, with over 300 from each type of five towns in England [as outlined in Chapter 1 of the report]. Responses were sampled to be representative of each town type by gender, age, region and social grade, and weighted to be representative of all towns included within the typology. Demos boosted the sample size of town types that make up a smaller proportion of the population of towns to allow for robust statistical analysis by town type.

Demos used a tool, Polis, which allows respondents to interact with each other constructively: mapping out the lay of the land with regard to opinion on a given subject, identifying attributes that define and differentiate between different clusters of opinion, and highlighting areas of consensus between otherwise disparate attitudinal groups.

Media Contact

Josh Tapper, Communications Officer, Demos

Phone: 07535748224

Email: josh.tapper@demos.co.uk

Alison Anderson, Corporate Communications Manager, KPMG

Phone: 0113 254 2980 / 07733 453 065

Email: alison.anderson@kpmg.co.uk


About Demos

Demos is Britain’s leading cross-party think-tank: an independent, educational charity, which produces original and innovative research.

About KPMG

KPMG LLP, a UK limited liability partnership, operates from 21 offices across the UK with approximately 17,600 partners and staff. The UK firm recorded a revenue of £2.40 billion in the year ended 30 September 2019.

KPMG is a global organization of independent professional services firms providing Audit, Tax and Advisory services. It operates in 147 countries and territories and has more than 219,000 people working in member firms around the world. Each KPMG firm is a legally distinct and separate entity and describes itself as such. KPMG International Limited is a private English company limited by guarantee. KPMG International Limited and its related entities do not provide services to clients.

© 2023 KPMG LLP a UK limited liability partnership and a member firm of the KPMG global organisation of independent member firms affiliated with KPMG International Limited, a private English company limited by guarantee. All rights reserved.

For more detail about the structure of the KPMG global organisation please visit https://kpmg.com/governance.

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