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Mile End Institute

Resilient place-shaping - Dr Patrick Diamond and Dr Andrew Walker

In the wake of the human and economic devastation wrought by Covid-19 and the ostensibly inept performance of the Johnson administration, a debate is certain to ensue about how effectively Britain is governed. There are many agendas at stake. Among the most important is the impact of blanket centralisation on our system of government, and the prevalence of a ‘Whitehall knows best’ mentality that has undermined our capacity to manage the pandemic.

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Photograph of a local council building. 

English governance has long been top-down. Yet the last decade has seen further centralisation in the face of austerity. Councils managing the shock of Covid-19 in local areas have insufficient powers, resources, people and infrastructure to do their job effectively. The levers of action are jealously guarded by central government while the disruption and uncertainty created by Brexit has been met with centrally mandated policies, notably the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda. The centre is too far removed to understand the diverse needs of local areas.

Meanwhile, the financial hit for local government of the current crisis is huge. Councils expect to spend £4.4bn more than forecast this year, while their non-tax income will be £2.8bn lower. Business rate and council tax revenue is expected to fall dramatically. That means an enormous £7.2bn gap on top of an already precarious position.

Even so, it is not sufficient to bemoan centralism and cuts. We need a serious alternative vision of how the country might be better governed. The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a light on the pathologies that still prevail in the UK, from rising inequality, to the crisis in the care sector, to the stubborn persistence of low wage work. Yet the pandemic has also emphasised the importance that citizens attach to the places and neighbourhoods where they live. Future governance should be rooted in a deeper understanding of place and how it shapes our lives.  

The aim of levelling up and building back better in local communities will only be achieved with a local, place-focused approach. Councils need the resources and levers to promote the wellbeing of communities and citizens. Governments should focus less on the narrow lens of financial efficiency, and more on the resilience of our local economies and societies.

Despite a decade of austerity, there is still huge capacity for local strategic leadership. Councils are building partnerships and networks, listening to local citizens and working out how best to use their policy tools. In a new report published last week by the Local Government Information Unit and Queen Mary University of London, we highlight some of the ground breaking work happening in local areas, particularly those like Cornwall, with new approaches to governance and new ways of working with local communities. Our research draws lessons from the innovative work going on in other places, including Colchester, Kirklees, Greater Manchester and Kent. More and more, councils are seeing their role as leaders of place, as agents for promoting and strengthening well-being.

By contrast, the limitations of Whitehall’s centralised governing approach have been exposed. Whitehall functions on a traditional view of power based on top-down decision making. The flaws of that approach have been laid bare during this crisis. Instead, place should be regarded as the fundamental anchor around which our system of government is organised.  

Proper recognition of place will help to heal our fractured polity. Place-orientated policies can address the strains exposed by the 2016 Brexit referendum. While England was left out of the devolution settlement of the late 1990s, the last 20 years has seen experiments with different innovations. Mayors, localism, city-regions, Total Place budgeting, citizens assemblies: all have the potential to strengthen the sense of place. But they have proved ad hoc and largely asymmetrical. What is absent is a coherent plan to strengthen local place leadership across England.

The focus on place will create better policies. For decades, governments emphasised the importance of interventions designed to support individuals through welfare to work, education, retraining, and parenting support. Yet the evidence indicates the places and localities where people live and work are hugely significant in shaping outcomes. The physical fabric of place matters. So too does the sense of identity that it provides. Recent research illustrates that place has a huge impact on the well-being of citizens. Those who live in poorer places tend to do worse on household income, employment, mental health, and so on.

Moreover, individuals are deeply attached to place. They move much less frequently than economists previously believed. As the Nobel prize-winners Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo demonstrated, workers in western countries do not simply shift to where the best jobs and industries are located. Regeneration that relies on workers moving to ‘high growth’ areas has been shown to fail. Place shapes an individual’s sense of motivation and self-worth. Public policy has to address spatial inequalities of place, not only the prospects of individuals and households. It has to rebuild the spirit of locality and community. The Government’s ambitions of ‘levelling up’ mean realigning power around places and communities, building on the expertise and experience of local government. It is disappointing that the Government’s White Paper on devolution is long delayed, and likely to be focused on narrow economic growth targets.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the limitations of measuring policy success solely through narrow indicators, notably GDP. Research shows that wellbeing is enhanced by enabling local people and communities to participate in the decisions that affect their lives. There are innumerable ways that local authorities can organise services and democratic structures to enhance wellbeing. Councils have a direct connection with local places. They are intertwined with local networks and communities in a way that is not possible for central government. Councils have deep knowledge of local areas and identities. Narratives of place draw attention to the social and physical fabric of communities, whether in urban environments, high streets, town centres or rural areas. Places are economies where we earn our living, communities where we relate to others, and the centrepiece of our identity and belonging.

Dr Patrick Diamond is a Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary University of London.

Dr Andrew Walker is Head of Research at LGiU (Local Government Information Unit).