Recognition of the importance of ‘place’ in local governance and policy-making has been around for several decades. In his influential report on the future of local government published in 2007, Sir Michael Lyons underlined the primacy of place, defining ‘place-shaping’ as, ‘the creative use of powers and influence to promote the general well-being of a community and its citizens’. The importance of place-based strategies have waxed and waned during the intervening period according to circumstances and political fashion. Yet there are indications that ‘place’ is returning, albeit tentatively, to the national policy conversation. The importance of place reflects not only the attention accorded to a particular set of policy interventions and local government responsibilities. ‘Place’ offers a unique lens for analysing the shape of our economy and society, for making judgements about policy priorities, and for better understanding what matters to citizens. Traditionally, economic and social policy in Britain revolved around analysis of each person’s life-chances in relation to household income, living standards, employment, education, skills and so on. This utilitarian mind-set has deep roots in English philosophy and the social sciences, focusing firmly on the individual. In contrast, narratives of ‘place’ draw attention to the social and physical fabric of the communities in which people live, their collective experience of urban environments, high streets, town centres and rural areas. ‘Places’ are economies where we earn our living, communities where we relate to others, and the centrepiece of our identity and belonging. So what lies behind the ‘strange rebirth’ of place in the governance of England?
It seems there are at least four key drivers of place as an approach to English governance and policy-making. The first is the unfinished nature of the British, and more particularly English, constitutional settlement. The consequence of devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland since the late 1990s was to create ‘asymmetrical’ constitutional arrangements in which different powers operate across the different tiers of government in the four nations. Moreover, England has long been the missing piece of the devolution jigsaw. The Blair Government sought to bolster the regional agenda in England by creating Regional Development Agencies (RDAs). Following the defeat of the referendum on the North-East Regional Assembly in 2004, Ministers shifted their focus to promoting directly elected mayors, while continuing to pay heed rhetorically to the ‘new localism’. Few substantive powers were conceded to local government, while a battery of targets and performance frameworks were imposed on councils which directly undermined place-based policy-making. Yet in recent years, increasing importance has been attached to acknowledging the importance of ‘place’, partly to counteract the feelings of resentment and alienation experienced by English communities in the wake of devolution. Even so, the devolution agenda still feels incomplete, while many councils may lack the powers and resources to prioritise place-shaping.
The second driver of place reflects a radical shift of mindset and culture within English local government itself. Since the 1980s, local councils have been moving away from their post-war focus on delivering services through a predominantly transactional relationship with citizens, to understanding their role and relationships within local communities – local government as partner and enabler with civil society working alongside anchor institutions from the NHS to local universities. The origins of the Labour Government’s ‘total place’ agenda were about integrating services, ensuring greater efficiency while improving the service delivery experience for citizens. That shift has undoubtedly been encouraged by the dire financial situation in which local councils find themselves after a decade of cuts, combined with the inexorable growth of demand for local public services. ‘Place’ is partly about understanding how local authorities can use resources judiciously, where possible doing more with less, the new mantra of ‘permanent austerity’ public management.
The third driver of place-shaping is the increasing political importance of so-called ‘left behind’ places and the ‘levelling up’ agenda that helped to secure Boris Johnson’s substantial majority at the December 2019 general election. The increasing emphasis on ‘left behind’ communities, more often towns outside urban centres and in coastal areas, itself originates in the 2016 referendum on UK membership of the European Union (EU). The larger than anticipated ‘leave’ vote is widely interpreted as a political cry of despair from former industrial communities in Northern England, the Midlands and Wales in revolt against the long-term economic consequences of globalisation. Across the political spectrum, there is near unanimous agreement that greater attention ought to be focused on designing policy interventions to improve economic and social outcomes in those places.
The difficulty, however, is that delivering policies to regenerate ‘left behind’ places is far from straight forward. The former Government adviser, Stian Westlake, refers to the ‘terrible confusion’ that bedevils policy-making around devolution and place in Whitehall. Some analysts emphasise the importance of reindustrialisation, strengthening the industrial backbone of Northern towns by expanding the manufacturing sector. However, as Westlake emphasises, focusing on manufacturing growth through industrial policy ignores the reality that many towns in developed economies have become less productive over the last forty years. Other experts focus on how to reinvent towns as desirable destinations for affluent commuters, integral to dense urban networks linked to cities as the drivers of growth through high-quality transport infrastructure. Less emphasised has been the importance of the foundational economy, the localised services required to meet essential human needs, where towns clearly have a vital role to play. The debate is far from resolved. Yet there is little question that place will remain hugely important in the debate about the future economy.
The fourth driver of place-based strategies relates to the impact of the global Covid-19 pandemic on the UK’s economy and society. Although the virus struck the whole of Great Britain, its impact has varied significantly across places and communities. This situation reflects the distribution of structural deprivation and vulnerability within the UK population. There is evidence that disadvantaged communities have sustained higher mortality rates as a result of Covid-19. Sunderland in the North-East of England has the most cases per head of population, in comparison to Bournemouth on the south coast which has least. The context is also to do with the economic dynamics of the crisis and in particular its tendency to accelerate pre-existing trends. Some local economies will inevitably find it harder to recover and adapt to the structure of the post-pandemic world. For example, Centre for Cities finds that towns such as Barnsley, Stoke and Burnley are least likely to have workers in occupations where home-working is viable. The Government’s lockdown exit strategy is inevitably focused on England in its entirety, but the virus has had a divergent impact in different places. Local councils are using a vast array of levers, not only to forge an emergency response but to enable faster economic and social recovery. Any viable UK economic and social post-pandemic strategy will have to be fundamentally place-focused.
Of course, the localised place-shaping agenda will encounter formidable obstacles in the future. The British state has acted as the employer of last resort in this crisis, using its economic firepower to save jobs and businesses across the UK. The National Health Service has concentrated resources and decision-making authority, as the system is driven increasingly by the centre. Remarkably, central government has refused to incorporate local government public health capacity into its testing and contact-tracing effort. Citizens themselves may have become more nervous of ‘postcode lotteries’, suspicious of further moves towards English devolution that are perceived to fragment public services. More fundamentally, there is still an unresolved issue about what scale of ‘place’ is most administratively efficient and legitimate in local governance – local authority boundaries, economic areas, or locality and its link to the sense of belonging?
As ever, the politics of place will be vigorously contested. Yet there is little doubt that place-based approaches should occupy a centrally important role in the future politics and policy of England and across the UK.