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Memo to Boris: Buses will only get you so far

The Red Wall turns Blue: Across the North, the Midlands and Wales, the Conservatives won fifty seats from Labour.

February 26, 2020 - 5:42pm

A useful new report from the Resolution Foundation has busted some lazy stereotypes about the so-called “blue wall’ of new Tory seats in the Midlands and the North. It turns out Blue Wall communities aren’t especially poor or elderly or subject to population decline. What makes them different are issues like lack of population churn — with relatively few people moving in or out —  and shorter travel to work times compared to other parts of the country. Very few commuters use public transport.

Some commentators — like Frances Coppola writing for CapX — have jumped on these findings to make the case that Blue Wall workers need to “get on their bikes,” i.e. travel further for work to maximise their earning opportunities.

I’d respectfully disagree with this interpretation. If they’re not commuting long distances then blame geography not lack of effort. Blue Wall seats tend to be centred on small cities and large towns, and so they have their own distinct economic geography: enough urban density to provide local jobs, but patchy connections to neighbouring centres of employment.

This means something quite important for Boris Johnson’s vision for reinvigorating these regions.

By all means, level-up their public transport links — especially those between Blue Wall towns and the fast-growing core cities of the North and Midlands. But at the same time, understand that the Blue Wall isn’t ever going to be reshaped into a London-style commuter belt, with purely commuter based towns serving a few central hubs. A lot of people are going to stay dependent on local jobs (and, in any case, have good reasons to prefer that to endless commuting).

That’s why buses will only get Boris so far: he needs a plan to give local communities more power in deciding everything from planning to skills specialisation. His new voters don’t want to become London-style commuters; they want to live, and work, in a thriving small centre of their own.

These communities responded to the message of ‘take back control’. To hold the Blue Wall, Boris Johnson must allow them to do just that.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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