A new approach to market towns
HAVE we all been sleeping?
Or, more specifically, do we need an overhaul of the notion of ‘market towns’, and national policy towards them?
New research reveals that 11m people live in the 1600 towns that have a population of between 1,500-40,000 people (2001).
This is equivalent to the population of Greater London and the West Midlands combined.
What is more, they are growing over twice as fast as larger settlements (5.3% growth between 2001-06) and accounted for 60% of the growth in population between 2001-06.
And yet it is rare for market towns to receive any policy focus – apart from the patchy and ad hoc Market Towns Initiatives, promoted by Regional Development Agencies.
Rural Services Network – July 2009
These are some of the findings of research by John Shepherd, Professor of Geography at Birkbeck College, University of London, that was supported by Action for Market Towns.
The phrase ‘market town’ needs updating, and the towns needs far greater policy focus from government, says Professor Shepherd, who is also Chair of the Rural Evidence Research Centre, with whom RSN has recently formed a partnership.
Using the phrase ‘market towns’, he says, means they are perceived as “comfortable and non problematic”, but in practice they have social and other issues like urban areas.
And they vary widely so one blanket description is not suitable for all of them.
His research used 48 economic and social measures to categorise the 1600 towns – not all of which are in rural locations – into eight distinct groups, each of which he summarises by factors such as their main population group or job opportunities.
Three examples of the groups include: ‘Middle age, Managerial jobs’ (eg towns along the south coast, and near major cities); ‘Routine Jobs, Agriculture/Manufacturing’ (in Norfolk, mid Somerset and Lincolnshire); and ‘ Disadvantages’ (dominated by the former coalfield towns of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and elsewhere).
The typology of towns has been well received by AMT members.
At a recent meting, members said the typology would help councils in their economic development, community development and planning activities. And they felt it would be useful for making comparisons with other towns, regionally and nationally, and so promote a better understanding of each town’s role.
Professor Shepherd calls the towns ‘the forgotten fifth’ (they account for 22% of the national population), and says they should receive far greater attention from policy makers.
“The towns have been neglected strategically and are not mentioned in policy making,” he says.
One example of how they have been neglected, he explains, is that although the towns have only 7% of the land, they have 90% of the people, and should therefore be the focus of planning policies as to where to locate new housing, job opportunities and public services.
But this is not the case.
In contrast, far more attention is focussed on land policy for national parks and AONBs – but where far fewer people live.
Professor Shepherd’s views are echoed by another recently published study on how the recession is affecting market towns, undertaken by AMT and the Centre for Local Economic Strategies.
‘National policy priorities simply do not reflect the needs of market towns and much more needs to be given over to considering the economic role that rural centres play,’ wrote the report.
The report also criticised the lack of understanding about the role market towns play in regional/local economies. And, like Professor Shepherd, it said the towns are forgotten from policy making, which it said tend to focus on large urban centres.
“Support for Market Towns Initiatives has diminished,” says Alison Eardley, policy manager at AMT. “Recent focus is on urban areas and the very rural – small towns fall between the two.”
AMT is looking to get market towns back onto the government’s agenda, and has submitted proposals to improve their economic vitality during the recession.
It is calling for market towns to receive greater financial support (through reduction in business rates and greater co-operation from shop landlords), legal assistance (protection against out of town shopping centres), and improved infrastructure and transport links.
It is also calling for greater devolution of powers and resources to towns.
“The time is right for a much grater policy focus on the needs and challenges of rural market towns,” says Sarah Longlands, director of policy at CLES.
© Robert Bullard. Not for reproduction without prior permission