Place-based policy-making is regularly called for but rarely cogently justified.
We need stronger and clearer arguments for place-based policy making. In a post-Brexit world, we need more of it, so let’s make a better case.
Arguments for place-based policy-making add little if all they are just a different way of saying you favour decision-making by local government and democracy. In centralised Britain, arguments for local autonomy have not really gripped either elite or popular imagination in the last few decades. The classic arguments for local government as a bulwark against central government, a training ground for democracy or as means to local choice appear to fall on to stony ground, partly because they do not seem grounded in the realities of the 21st century, which is perhaps not surprising given their 19th century origins. Those who think that calls to ‘take back control’ (the leave campaign mantra) create a space for the classic arguments for local autonomy to finally be heard in post-Brexit Britain are in denial about the lack of traction of these arguments.
I propose we build the case for place-based policy-making on different arguments and ones closely related to the circumstances of a post-Brexit world. The first set of arguments draw on theories from spatial economics. The second line of reasoning derives from a public administration debate on the limits of specialisation and the need for holistic solutions. The third perspective rests on the issues of identity and social cohesion. None of these arguments are novel on their own, but bringing them together makes a new powerful case for place-based policy-making.
Studies in economic geography have shown the importance of agglomeration and clustering for economic growth and have led to advocacy of placed-based as opposed to place-neutral policy-making. The content of place-based policy will need to be sensitive to the very different circumstances of post-Brexit Britain, with different strategies for those areas where connections to global dynamics are strong (which largely voted to remain) and those areas where that might be viewed as being in the slow lane when it comes to growth (which tended to vote leave).
For areas of growth, the challenges are congestion, housing shortages and sustaining a wider social fabric as the pace of work accelerates. For those in the slow lane, acceleration will most likely come from a commitment to diversifying the economic base as well targeted financial incentives, infrastructure and training. The key shift in the pattern of governance towards place-based decision-making, both within government and within businesses, is essential because without it the dynamic of change will not be sustainable.
The government’s recently announced industrial and housing strategies do not sufficiently recognise that it is the very centralization at the heart of political and corporate decision-making that lies at the heart of Britain’s north-south divide and the divisions within those regions.
The second argument is drawn from the public administration case for joined-up approaches to public services. These in turn are about recognising that individuals and communities that present themselves as problematic need solutions that bring together resources from multiple actors, both from within government and outside it. Specialisation has been the de facto mantra of public service reform for decades, driven in part by professionalised interests and strong national lobbies. The argument for place-based decision-making is not to deny the need for diverse expertise and skills but to argue that greater value and innovation emerges when interactions between specialists are stimulated and supported.
The final element in the case for place-based decision-making is the argument that identity still has a place dynamic to it, even in these complex and global times. It is a more difficult argument to tie down but progress is evident in the British Academy project Where We Live Now that is coming to fruition. The project questions whether aligning the design and resourcing of policy-making to the scales at which individuals connect to places, irrespective of sectoral divisions, would produce more effective policies. We can agree with the British Academy that sense of place is certainly not about fixed, geographical parameters. It is about feelings and what a place means to the sense of who you are and where you come from. Multiple versions will exist in residents’ minds in any geographical place, yet crucially, these feelings matter, both as a driver of and block to desirable change. Place-based policy-making and extensive local knowledge are the only way of unlocking these dynamics.
These arguments all need further elaboration and could be joined by others but they begin to provide a platform for a theory of place-based policy-making that could help convince and persuade skeptical audiences.
Gerry Stoker, professor of governance and politics, School of Social Sciences, Southampton University and centenary research professor, Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, University of Canberra