The Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election: A perfect opportunity for politicians to explain their vision for growth in post-Brexit Britain.

An intriguing by-election…

I grew up in Stoke-on-Trent and the city has returned Labour MPs in all of its seats without exception throughout my lifetime. The fact that there is even speculation about the result of the upcoming by-election, caused by Tristram Hunt’s decision to resign as MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, is another sign of the changed times we live in.

The reasons why speculation about the result is rife are clear:

  • Political apathy has been on the rise – Stoke-on-Trent Central had the lowest turnout of any seat in the 2015 General Election – this is a City where people do feel detached from the political process;
  • The EU referendum energised the local electorate and nearly 70% of the votes in the City were for leave, with 65% Leave vote in the Stoke-on-Trent Central constituency – this is an electorate which sees Brexit as an opportunity to create change.

As Britain moves close to invoking Article 50 to begin the process of leaving the EU, the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election provides a perfectly timed opportunity for the political parties to articulate their view of how to drive economic progress in the UK up to, and after, Brexit.

…in a representative seat.

I don’t live in Stoke-on-Trent anymore but over the last year, coincidentally following a nudge from Tristram Hunt, I have spent time with local businesses, Stoke City FC, local politicians, educators and charities. I also found myself selling two houses on behalf of relatives and have spent quite a bit of time helping people navigate the local health and social care sectors. I am in no doubt from my personal experience that Stoke-on-Trent provides the ideal economic and social testbed for politicians to use to explain how they plan to support the future development of the UK economy.

But even if you don’t know the local environment, the economic data quickly shows why this is such a good model for testing for future economic policy. Stoke-on-Trent has been a manufacturing city for centuries – it was the centre of the UK pottery industry by 1740 and led the world by the turn of the 19th Century. In 1948, a century later, 79,000 worked in the pottery industry.

The decline in manufacturing has hit Stoke-on-Trent hard. This has been most marked since 2000. There was a fall from 39,200 to 34,300 employed in manufacturing between 1991 and 2000 but today only 16,300 work in the sector. It does appear that the accelerating rate of decline is related to the acceleration of globalisation since 2000. Nevertheless manufacturing accounts for over 12% of employment in the area compared to 7% nationally

However, it is not just the state of manufacturing that poses challenges for policy-makers looking to the future of the UK post-Brexit. Stoke-on-Trent’s economic structure is representative of other mid-sized cities and towns in the North and Midlands:

  • Relatively fast-growing sectors are underrepresented, only 3.5% of employment is accounted for by IT, 3.3% by Professional Services and 2.4% by Financial Services. In total, these three sectors account for about half the share of employment in Stoke-on-Trent compared to the country as a whole.
  • Public sector employment is relatively more important as a share of total jobs, with health and social care making up almost 19% of total employment, education 7% and public administration 3%. In total about one third greater as a share of total employment than in the UK as a whole.
  • Incomes are relatively low. Personal disposable income is about 70% of the UK average and less than two thirds of the level in the South East.
  • Population is flat, it was 249,000 in 1991 and is 252,000 today, with little sign of any growth. Despite no major change in overall size, the population is getting older and the mix has shifted over time with three periods in which immigration grew from different regions of the world, the Caribbean, Indian sub-continent and Eastern Europe.

Stoke-on-Trent also illustrates the challenge of how to truly make growth inclusive. It has not benefited significantly from recent activity to boost economic growth in the UK’s cities and regions. Although it is near to both groupings, it is not part of either the Northern Powerhouse or the Midlands Engine, while current plans for HS2 do not envisage a station in Stoke-on-Trent.

So what is the plan?

Politicians are all staking their claims to be the best placed to provide the solution to the challenges facing the UK economy. Stoke-on-Trent is an industrial city working to cope with the challenges of the decline in manufacturing, having a relatively small services sector and stagnant demographics, while being outside of recent major policy initiatives. Hence this is exactly the type of city that policy-makers must convince that their plans can deliver better opportunities to in the future than has been the case in recent years.

If politicians in the UK are truly committed to delivering their version of inclusive growth, they need to convince and engage people in cities like Stoke-on-Trent. The upcoming by-election is perfectly timed and perfectly located – I want to hear the answers to the following questions:

  • What is the future for manufacturing in the UK’s cities?
  • How can we include smaller cities in the devolution programme?
  • What do we need to do to encourage the fastest growing sectors to invest in cities such as Stoke-on-Trent?
  • What is the correct balance between controlling public spending and investing in services, skills and infrastructure across our smaller UK cities and towns?
  • How can we design Brexit to benefit cities like Stoke-on-Trent?

I am sure I am not the only one looking forward to the answers.

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