Seaside, University, Ex-Industrial, Commuter, Market, and New Towns. The Centre for Towns studies them all.

 Greenock - an "ex-industrial, medium town", according to the Centre For Towns typology

Greenock - an "ex-industrial, medium town", according to the Centre For Towns typology

In our "I - We - World" framework for thinking about a transformed citizenship, the "We" realm is for us a space for exploration and experiment. How big or small should a place be, to ensure that ideal balance between community and power? Should it be forged anew, to reflect a new ambition? Or should it found where it already lies, and its traditions developed? 

To think about what we mean by a "town" is an excellent way to start this kind of exploration. We were delighted to discover (a little belatedly) The Centre For Towns the other day. Founded by a data analyst, a political scientist and an MP (Labour's Lisa Nandy, for Wigan) at the end of 2017, they are a non-aligned think tank that want to focus their attention on the towns of Britain.

They have a post-Brexit edge to them - aware of how much the Remain-Leave vote was polarised between the bigger cities (mostly Remain),  and the towns in between those cities (mostly Leave). They have created a useful categorisation for different sizes of "place" in the UK (with their overall numbers attached at the end):

  • Villages (less than 5,000) - Places with less than 5,000 residents (5,568)
  • Communities (5-10k) Places with between 5,000 and 10,000 residents (567)
  • Small towns (10k-30k) Towns with between 10,000 and 30,000 residents (550)
  • Medium towns (30k – 75k) Towns with between 30,000 and 75,000 residents (242) 
  • Large towns (over 75k) Towns with over 75,000 residents (102)
  • Core Cities As defined by Pike et al (2016) (numbering 12: Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Nottingham, Sheffield)

They have also hazarded a qualitative definition of certain types of town:

  • Seaside towns – towns with over 10,000 residents with a significant non-estuary coastal boundary. Examples include Rhyl, Blackpool, and Grimsby.
  • University towns – towns with a university and a significant proportion of resident students. Examples include Lancaster, Huddersfield, Aberystwyth, Canterbury and Loughborough.
  • Ex-industrial towns – towns which were formerly the home of heavy industry, but which have found it difficult to adapt to a decline in those industries. Examples include Redcar, Rotherham, Merthyr Tydfil, Greenock and Mansfield.
  • Commuter towns – towns which are within a relatively easy commuting distance of our cities and which are attractive to commuters for that reason. Examples include Luton, Maidenhead, Canterbury and Halesowen.
  • Market towns – small to medium-sized semi-rural towns with traditional market ‘rights’. Examples include Skipton, Abingdon, Market Harborough, Ludlow and Hexham.
  • New towns – designated new towns such as Milton Keynes, Stevenage and Harlow

It's easy to be fascinated by the sheer diversity of forms here, and the evident requirement to customise development for each type and size of town.

The Centre for Towns are starting to imagine what those custom approaches would be. A blog called "Unlocking Runcorn" tells the story of a campaign that began in the town in 2004, "launched with the express intention of restoring the dormant canals of Runcorn and for the waterways of the town to re-open to pleasure boating, a rapidly expanding tourist industry estimated to run into the hundreds of millions of pounds each year across Britain." So what is the plan?

The Unlock Runcorn feasibility study envisages the construction of a new boat lift, the re-opening of the historic locks and a rare incline railway to transport boats to the Ship Canal. In short, a must-do destination for pleasure boaters. The Runcorn Ring as it would be known would unblock the canals and compliment the plans of the local council, who have ambitious plans to regenerate the town centre itself, including a Canalside quarter. In short, the canals of Runcorn would again flow with traffic. A re-developed town centre would front on to a working canal system; something unique to Runcorn and part of a grand plan for the town.

The Centre for Towns like the Runcorn project, calling it "a sensibly planned and fully costed community-led project which reflects the unique characteristics of place", and has many different strata of local power supporting it.

We would only hope that the "unlocking" extends in various directions. Could a town re-defined by the eminently sustainable and steady rhythms of canal transport extend this to other desirable "qualities of life"? Is there a spirit of self-reliance and autonomy that could transfer itself to food, housing, culture? 

We'll observe the Centre's research findings with great interest.