Improving Productivity by Connecting Small Towns – Why We Must Improve Rail Links

James Prentice makes the case for improved rail connections to boost productivity in small towns and tackle deprivation.

The Problem:

Employers often find That they cannot acquire the skilled labour they need where their businesses operate. This means that vacancies go unfilled, skills are not efficiently used and businesses are being restrained. This problem of productivity has hampered UK economic growth. Labour’s first mission has a goal of securing long-term economic growth and solving the UK’s productivity puzzle will be required if this is to be achieved. This article argues that better transport connectivity between deprived small towns and their nearest regional economic hub could help address poor UK productivity.

A potential cause of poor productivity:

The Centre for Cities has argued the UK economy lags behind in productivity compared to other Western European economies partly due to a lack of public transport connectivity to cities. In a report, they highlight how most towns that have longer commuting times to their nearest city tend to have more socio-economic problems, such as higher unemployment, low growth and lower wages. This all contributes to creating Britain’s productivity problem. 

Proposed solution – infrastructure improvements for deprived towns: 

This problem could be addressed with infrastructure improvement projects. These projects could focus on better connecting small deprived towns to their nearest regional economic hub. These hubs tend to be the nearest city-centre or large town. This would help cities increase their productivity by unlocking a greater supply of required skills. Further, this would help address regional inequalities by supplying towns with a greater number of higher paid employment opportunities, which in turn would help money flow into these deprived towns and improve their local economies. This improvement would also help Labour secure its first mission of creating long-term sustainable growth.

Evidence this could work:

The Centre for Cities has demonstrated that even in lower-performing city economies the extent towns are connected to these economic hubs still shapes average income levels as even poorer-performing cities still drive regional economic outcomes. To demonstrate this, they outline how towns better connected to the regional economic hub of Newcastle tend to have higher wages, lower unemployment, stronger economic growth and from this, better productivity. Therefore, the evidence suggests that if more deprived towns were connected to a regional economic hub then economic growth, and its socio-economic benefits, could be distributed more widely across the UK, thus helping to secure long-term sustainable growth. 

Project example - Improving Hastings to London connections.

1. Hastings high-speed rail:

Hastings to London is 65.1 miles, but journeys take around two hours. Yet, Brighton to London Victoria, 64.6 miles, only takes one hour. Therefore, Hastings needs investment due to its relatively high levels of deprivation and isolation. 

The project would connect Hastings to its regional economic hub, London. It would involve electrifying the Hastings line to give high-speed access to the Ashford International, London St Pancras line, reducing travel times to around one hour. This high-speed service would replace diesel-operated trains, making it environmentally beneficial. The project is estimated to cost between £200m and £500m. Further, by connecting Hastings to a major economic hub, reports into this project estimate that major economic benefits such as higher wages and employment levels could be delivered to one of the poorest constituencies in the country. 

2. Hastings to London Charing Cross express service. 

On the Hastings to London Charing Cross line, a cheaper form of rail improvement is possible. An express service, which would be a small purpose-built train that would provide a quicker link between Hastings and Westminster train stations and would run at peak commuting times. By stopping at fewer stations, the service could cut journey times close to one hour, thus better connecting skills to the city of London. 

Why a Labour government should do this:

This will help achieve three of the five Labour missions. It will help secure sustained economic growth, break down barriers to opportunity and hit clean energy targets. 

This addresses productivity and other economic problems in isolated deprived areas. Also, this is compatible with Labour’s long-term policy approach and moves away from short-term sticking-plaster politics. This is because these projects in the long-term can generate an economic return. For example, the Department for Transport (DfT) estimates the Hastings high-speed rail project will pay for itself within 30 years due to projected economic return. 

Some projects have already been explored. For example, Hastings high-speed rail plans have already been considered viable by DfT. Therefore, limited work needs to be done to achieve project initiation. 

There tends to be political support for such projects from residents compared to other larger projects like HS2. This means that these projects would have more support than larger projects, potentially making them more democratic and easier to implement due to less resistance. 

Therefore, due to these benefits and compatibility with Labour’s agenda, a future Labour government should connect small deprived towns to Britain’s economic hubs.

James Prentice is a Labour and Fabian member in the Hastings & Rye area. He has recently finished a PhD in British politics at the University of Sussex, researching changes in voting behaviour since Brexit. 
His writing interests include trends in voting behaviour, inequality, institutional reform and the state of public services, as well as policy solutions to inequality. 
He regularly posts blogs on these subjects on his website, and tweets @JamesPrentice93
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