22 July 2019

Rebalancing Britain: The next PM must focus on towns like Mansfield

By Ben Bradley MP

Last week, CapX and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation launched Rebalancing Britain, a major new project focusing on how the next Prime Minister should tackle the longstanding imbalances in the British economy. The project will focus not only on the well-documented North/South divide, but on the way smaller towns and cities are often left behind in national policy debates.

Today we hear from Mansfield MP Ben Bradley on addressing the challenges facing smaller towns such as his, and how Westminster can return power to local areas.

I was elected in 2017 as the first Conservative MP to ever serve the people of Mansfield and Warsop. A proud moment, and firm evidence of how the decades have changed the place. Mansfield has an industrial past of coal mining and textiles and has always been considered a safe Labour seat – the kind of place where you could ‘stick a red rosette on a donkey and it would win’.

That is clearly not the case any more, and though the local economy has never quite recovered from that loss of industry, it has an awful lot of potential. Ours is a historic and in many ways beautiful town centre located in the heart of the old Sherwood Forest. But in order to prosper, we need help to take full advantage of everything we have.

Mansfield is a constituency that the new Prime Minister must take seriously, too. Not only is it the front line of British politics right now, but the challenges in Mansfield are at the very heart of the debate on the longstanding imbalances in the British economy.

As the biggest town in the county, roughly equidistant between Nottingham and Sheffield, this should be a hive of activity. Urban centres that fall outside of cities have been overlooked though by successive governments, often bypassed for regeneration funding and missing out on capital for infrastructure and transport improvements.

Mansfield has no major rail link and no direct services to Sheffield. The M1 is close but the access routes are poor and journey times are slow. While Mansfield’s housing is affordable there is no incentive for commuters to move into the town when the transport links are inefficient. The same challenges can be a barrier to attracting new business investment too.

Although redressing the investment imbalance between the north and south is essential, the East Midlands is too often overlooked. In reality this is consistently the part of the country with the lowest investment. A north/south analysis is far too simplistic and ignores areas such as Mansfield.

There’s a lot we could do. Our economy would benefit hugely from extending the Robin Hood railway line to link towns and industrial sites as well as the tourist attractions in Sherwood Forest. Increasing road capacity, improving the marketing and building the town up as a gateway to the Forest; an affordable town for commuting to Nottingham and Sheffield is surely not beyond the wit of man.

Education is at the very heart of the issue of regional disparity. It’s something which is often overlooked when considering the best ways to boost local economies. Rebalancing things and meeting the challenges of the fourth industrial revolution starts with reforming education. We need to refocus on technical and vocation education, providing practical learning at colleges, harnessing degree apprenticeships and reskilling former industrial areas.

Relatively few people in towns like Mansfield go to university. Further education remains an overlooked option but an effective path into work for young people who want to earn and learn locally. With improved funding and a plan to give parity of esteem to technical qualifications, colleges can thrive, and local businesses can find the highly skilled, well trained workforce that they need. A great FE provider with effective business links can both churn out skilled workers and also attract business to the area, reversing the spiral of decline.

The skills we need for the future are changing. We need to ensure that people are studying qualifications that give them the skills that they need and we need to face up to new challenges, including automation. Degree apprenticeships can do just that by addressing the skills shortages in the workplace and linking students up with employers, as well as overcoming the barriers of cost and perceptions that prevent young people in towns like mine from aspiring to university. It would also end the pattern of ‘brain-drain’, with those who aspire to a degree and a graduate job being forced to move away.

Mansfield is filled with micro-businesses and there remains a struggle to attract major employers outside of low-skilled work. We need to attract significant employers offering better paid, highly skilled roles. High quality local employers can help raise aspirations and working directly with education institutions can boost our skills, grow their own workforce and change the local discourse about opportunities.

Local well paid jobs also ensure that people have the disposable income to invest in their local area which in turn helps regenerate town centres into vibrant social hubs.

For too long, decision-making has centred in cities. There remains a real sense of frustration that the issues affecting towns such as Mansfield are failing to be understood in Westminster.

One way of addressing this would be by devolving power by bringing forward more Devo Deals, giving local areas more autonomy and control over their local economies. As in Manchester and Birmingham, this would need to come with a restructure and reimagining of local Government if it’s to be viable; not easy, but perhaps it’s time to grasp that nettle.

Voters in working class communities are largely Leave-voting Brexit supporters. Mansfield is a key marginal seat with an increasingly loud voice. If we’re not winning here at the next election, then we’re not winning; period. We are now in a position where local economic need must join up with political incentive to sort out these local issues and economic imbalances. There is every incentive, politically, economically and morally, to focus on our post-industrial towns and push a long term economic plan that puts their needs at the centre of policymaking.

Post-Brexit regional development policy will offer a good opportunity to replace EU structural funds with funding that is more tailored to local needs. It needs to focus on driving good jobs and growth and ensuring that local economies are robust and sustainable to meet future challenges. While research projects and cultural funds are nice to have, economic regeneration needs to be the real focus of regional development.

As with Portsmouth, the focus of the first ‘Rebalancing Britain’ report, Mansfield is split politically. Independents and Labour did well in recent local elections and the Brexit party secured support in the European elections. Undoubtedly old industries and unionisation fostered support for Labour in the past but demographic changes have shifted the balance.

As with Portsmouth too, many people in Mansfield feel powerless and that politicians in London have ignored their opinions. The message that resonated most with my constituents in recent years was the “taking back control” narrative of the Brexit referendum. Taking back control is a powerful message if you feel you have none, and if you feel like things are done ‘to’ you rather than ‘for’ you.

In order to help Mansfield grow and prosper and feel a valued part of the UK economy, the new Chancellor must address local economic challenges, invest in education and boost skills training to upskill workers and attract new employers offering well paid jobs.

These steps will ensure that towns and cities, from Portsmouth to Mansfield and beyond will grow and prosper.

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Ben Bradley is MP for Mansfield