Tristram Hunt MP: "We must improve skills if the Potteries is to prosper again"
HERE is a tale of three towns. In 1901, Blackburn, Burnley and Preston all shared common characteristics, with populations somewhere between 170,000 and 200,000, located within 20 miles of each other to the north of Manchester.
The trio had come of age as cotton towns during the Industrial Revolution, but their trajectory during the 20th century revealed the impact of very different political choices.
Historically, Blackburn and Burnley had the more concentrated weaving trade, with textiles accounting for more than 35 per cent of employment in 1901. Preston, by contrast, had just over 20 per cent in the cotton business.
But then, from the early 1900s, decline in imperial trade and the rise of international competition began to affect the economies of all three towns. The First World War impacted heavily on cotton production, while Lancashire was hit a second time in the inter-war years by the 'Indian Cotton Boycott' which saw the subcontinent resist British imports.
Industrial decline accelerated in the post-war years – and here the towns started to pursue competing paths.
Blackburn and Burnley failed to respond effectively to economic change and experienced mass out-migration and sustained falls in private sector employment.
Preston, on the other hand, decided to diversify. It reinvented itself as a regional service centre, attracted the University of Central Lancaster, secured infrastructure upgrades (the first British motorway was the Preston by-pass of 1958), and broadened its industrial offer to attract engineering and companies manufacturing electrical goods.
The 50s and 70s also saw the growth of aerospace industry in South Ribble, just south of Preston. All of which managed to produce a new economic future for the city.
Between 1998 and 2008, Preston saw the third highest rate of private sector jobs growth.
This cotton town case study comes from a fascinating new report by the Centre for Cities think-tank, looking at the state of our towns and cities in 1901 and how they have fared since.
And the authors are adamant that while policy decisions can change the fate of a city, its historic inheritance can also shape its future.
One hundred years on, towns are still battling with their inheritance of engrained legacies.
Even in 1901 a North-South divide was emerging, with cities in the South tending to be more affluent, with higher skills, higher wages and greater wealth. Alongside this accelerating north to south shift, the 20th century also witnessed a move from coastal to inland as changing trading patterns saw the likes of Hull, Liverpool and Dundee left high and dry.
So, what of Stoke-on-Trent? As you might imagine, in 1901 it was doing pretty well. But there were already some warning signals: our skills levels and property values were too low, and our over-dependence upon manufacturing (most noticeably in ceramics, which employed 30 per cent of the workforce) too high.
In short, we faced similar problems to Blackburn and Burnley – and failed to follow the path of Preston.
We lacked a diverse enough commercial base, so when industrial decline took hold, the Potteries was badly exposed.
Thankfully, this report is more than just a history lesson. It also offers some practical policy advice for the present.
First of all, skills are the biggest determinant of success for cities, and are critical for the life chances of individuals. Those cities with high skills levels in 1901 continued to outshine the competition over the succeeding century.
And there is no doubt that in Stoke-on-Trent, we need to redouble our efforts to improve educational attainment and skills provision in schools, colleges and workplaces.
Secondly, targeted investment in infrastructure can have a significant impact upon the economic prospects of a place. The early prosperity of the Potteries was intimately linked to the canal network and then turnpike system. We have done well out of the M6 and West Coast Main Line, and now we need to make sure any High Speed 2 line has a stop in North Staffordshire.
But the lesson of these three cotton towns is that the future is not pre-determined: choices can be made and better prospects realised.
Now, more than ever, we need to follow the path of Preston: focus on skills, support private enterprise, diversify our economy, and invest in infrastructure.
History always works best as a source of inspiration, not a counsel of despair.