Bright Futures – Understanding the reinvention of post-industrial towns

| No responses | Posted by: Helen Goulden | Theme: Places, Research, Work with Communities

Post-industrial towns have had many negative tales told about them which often only serve to undermine their history and renaissance. Understanding how a town or place bucks the trend and begins to prosper where once it was in decline, has to be one of the most interesting questions facing our patch-worked country.

In this blog our CEO, Helen Goulden focuses on how it is vital to turn back the tide on how we view towns, with a particular focus on Corby, now dubbed the “UK’s greatest town”, despite its many challenges.

This work is part of our Bright Futures research programme, a European Commission funded project focusing on 5 post-industrial towns.

We will also be sharing a series of forthcoming blogs from the residents of Corby themselves, telling their own experiences, insights and stories.

Eastbourne panorama

There has been a marked uptick in interest in towns across the UK recently, particularly coastal, post-industrial towns which have struggled (and continue to struggle) economically. Brexit perhaps has been the lightning rod for this resurgence in interest, however, it could well be representative of a much bigger shift toward a rebalancing of interests across a divided nation. A shift that inevitably flows from well-being and equality taking their long-absent place at the table alongside GDP as a measure of wealth and prosperity of a nation.

This turning back to towns, particularly post-industrial towns that have suffered long-term decline as a result of a changing economy, is bubbling up in a number of places outside the UK too. In the US, Jill Harrison’s recent study “Return to the Rust Belt” highlighted the stories of young people returning to Youngstown in Ohio. Last year billionaire Steve Case kicked off his ‘Rise of the Rest’ tour – seeking out and investing in talent and enterprises in middle America. Perhaps these examples, and others, are early signals of a trend that will take us towards a more geographically distributed, inclusive economy.

Understanding how a town or place bucks the trend and begins to prosper where once it was in decline, has to be one of the most interesting questions facing our patch-worked country.

A growing interest in the fortunes of our small to medium-sized towns can only be a good thing. Those good folk at the Centre for Towns have already highlighted that our towns are ageing – with around 80% of the growth of 25-44 year olds taking place in larger towns and cities. As a result, our villages and smaller towns have got older. And some, like Blackpool, are suffering from a complex set of inter-related challenges, resulting in the rise of what is called by some (although not, I suspect, by those experiencing it) Shit Life Syndrome.

Understanding how a town or place bucks the trend and begins to prosper where once it was in decline, has to be one of the most interesting questions facing our patch-worked country. And Bright Futures, an EC funded Young Foundation project, is looking to understand the character and resilience of small-medium industrial towns across Europe, including the UK town of Corby.

Aerial image of Corby

Why Corby?

Corby is a really interesting town that’s accrued a number of monikers over the last century. It earned the title of ‘Little Scotland’ when many Scottish people migrated to the town to work in the steelworks. When the steelworks were shut down in the 1980’s, those who had been dedicated to dangerous, skilled jobs, including driving the reconstruction post-war effort, now became unemployed. Like other industrial towns, they then experienced frustrating stop-start development initiatives, ad hoc bursts of funding and failed promises.  It wasn’t until the turn of the millennium that Corby began to evolve its post-industrial future.  

Today, Corby has many more, sometimes opposing, titles. It’s the fastest growing borough outside London, according to the ONS. Late last year it won the title of “UK’s Greatest Town” at the Academy of Urbanism Awards. It’s frequently talked about as a ‘phoenix’ rising from the ashes, and yet at the same time has been handed the title “Debt capital of Britain” – with requests for personal loans 47% higher than the national average.

Post the millennium, Corby set upon an explicit strategy to grow its population as a route back to having a strong local economy. And that strategy has been notionally successful, with a steady rise in workers from the eastern EU and a growth of London commuters handing it yet another title – ‘North Londonshire’.

While there have been ongoing set-backs through job losses, Corby has continued to grow its infrastructure: rail links, housing, leisure, retail – which on the surface looks to be a good thing.

Using population growth as a strategy for re-inventing a post-industrial town seems to have worked for Corby. But as in many other places, the growth in jobs is largely limited to low-skilled, low-income opportunities that are often precarious and contingent.

Corby Cube.

Corby Cube – major building development opened in 2010

In amongst all the changes, large and small, Corby has self-identified as being ‘resilient’. It has withstood many setbacks over the years, both as a result of government policies and economic shocks.

What is it that makes Corby resilient and phoenix-like? 

As we continue our Bright Futures work, it’s is critical we understand not only the contexts in which a significant number of the population live, but how to develop sustainable regional policy and innovations that work in the service of those populations. And our exploratory work with the people of Corby is very likely to reveal a complex story which speaks to the strategies, attributes, resilience and actions of its residents.

In working across a range of European post-industrial towns Bright Futures presents an opportunity to explore the reality of industrial and post-industrial towns and next month we begin sharing blogs from the residents of Corby, explaining themselves, their experiences, insights and stories.


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