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Brexit and Trump show we can’t abandon post-industrial communities

Tom Stannard
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The EU referendum result confounded the expectations of liberal pro-Europeans. The US presidential election will send to the White House a political novice.

All this points to a complicated set of challenges for those of us working in economic development and regeneration in the UK.

In a memorable piece the day after the US election, the Guardian’s Jon Swaine reflected on the results in Ohio, now at the heart of the Trump-leaning, economically depressed American rust belt. UK watchers of rust belt regeneration and politics have for years focused on neighbouring state Michigan and the tragic and compelling tale of Detroit’s rebirth. But Swaine’s comments on the mood and expectations of Ohio voters could prove prescient: “Trump has set expectations for the presidency extraordinarily high. Millions of people voted for his promise to achieve an improbable reversal of the decades-long structural decline in American manufacturing.”

This improbable reversal is at the heart of the challenge and opportunity the EU referendum and the presidential election result present. Political consequences aside, if the reversal is as economically improbable as most informed analyses suggest, should we just give up on those communities?

Coping with the lagging effects of post-industrial economic restructuring is the top priority in areas as diverse as the north east, Greater Manchester, south and mid-Wales, and many rurally isolated counties.

In Oldham our strategic investment framework has set out to prioritise the strongest sectors of our economy, such as health, social care and manufacturing, and the ‘gazelle’ sectors (those with strongest potential for growth) such as digital, creative and professional services.

The investment framework is also important because it splits our activity into three domains: people, business and place. The latter two often get most attention in local government. The referendum and US results demonstrate the importance of the first.

This is why our employment support and progression strategy, including the Oldham career advancement service, is one of the key interventions for working age people in Oldham that we implement. We help people in low-pay, low-skill work to improve and advance their skills and careers in the new economy emerging across the city region, alongside our major and ongoing programme of capital investment and business support.

Across the north west of England, this new economy presents big economic opportunities. But if there is one lesson from the EU vote and from America, it is that better connecting this opportunity to local residents’ aspirations, in areas suffering from post-industrial economic restructuring, has to be our top priority. Our populations and our politicians demand it, and it is our responsibility to deliver it.

Tom Stannard, director of economy and skills, Oldham MBC

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