In an age when the global market dictates how we produce and consume and the internet facilitates instantaneous communication, it’s not surprising many people assume where we live and how we interact with our neighbours is becoming less important to our personal fulfilment and the way we contribute to society.
Despite this, most of us retain a hardwired attachment to physical places, a pride in our background, origins or surroundings and an acute insight into what needs to be done to improve them.
People with a strong attachment to place get more involved in their communities and communities comprised of ‘highly attached’ people are more likely to work together to achieve positive change, such as protecting the environment or maintaining the culture, heritage or social fabric of their neighbourhoods.
When asked to consider which organisation has most impact on the way people think about their local area, the majority point to their local council.
Research by the Association for Public Service Excellence shows those service areas residents are most likely to associate with how the council manages their local area (transport, planning, environment, culture and community) have suffered disproportionately from cuts when compared to more high-profile spending areas such as social care, health, education and housing. The impact of cuts in the former areas has led to greater social division, with spending on what APSE terms ‘neighbourhood services’ falling more than four times as much in the most deprived local authority areas as in the least deprived.
APSE urges councils to make a stronger case for neighbourhood services because declining levels of satisfaction risk tainting the whole view of councils. Tellingly, the Local Government Association’s 2017 resident satisfaction survey shows while 80% of people still rate their level of satisfaction with their local area as high, satisfaction levels with the way councils are running local areas are at a historic low.
Recent work by the Health Foundation highlights the importance of place in addressing everything from heart disease to dementia. Prioritising investment in improving neighbourhoods and, crucially, helping people take more control over what happens in their area is the best long-term approach to managing unsustainable health and social care budgets.
Taking a place-centred approach to investment decisions is also vital if we’re going to meet longstanding political ambitions around social mobility. The government’s own Social Mobility Commission recently gave a damning report of progress despite two decades of rhetoric on the subject, describing how “left behind” parts of Britain are becoming “socially hollowed out”.
One of the challenges we face in turning this situation around is that a concentration on place brings with it the contention that all places are different so all solutions need to be crafted locally. This lets too many policymakers off the hook. For devolved decision-making to deliver maximum benefit we still need it underpinned with the right national strategies, frameworks and budgets.
In fact, the preoccupations of ‘big p’ politics hold within them the clues to how we use local place as a driving force for cohesion, mobility and growth. As local communities become more exposed to the turbulence of global trade deals and the ill winds of climate change, building resilience has got to be the answer. This means fashioning an economy in which we generate more of our own energy, grow more of our own food and make more of our own goods locally, not as a throwback to some Good Life self-sufficiency ethic but as the core of a modern and sustainable industrial strategy linked to a genuine rebalancing of the economy.
Governments and city mayors can compete for inward investment but can’t control the flow of global capital. However, they can start to rebuild the economic purpose and potential of places that grew up to serve an industrial explosion 150 years ago and now feel left behind, with all the consequences this has had for our current political predicament.
The government has started consulting on the scope and scale of a shared prosperity fund aimed at softening the Brexit blow for areas currently benefiting from EU structural funds. As it does so, it should remember good regeneration is about people and communities and prioritise a national strategy for growth that benefits people where they are rather than leaving them trapped in or forced to leave the place of which they feel a part.
Graham Duxbury, chief executive, Groundwork