Brexit has revealed a divided country, not only between people but also between places.
The vote itself reflected the contrasting trajectories of economic development and politics taken by locations strongly connected to the global knowledge economy compared to those areas that are less well-integrated. The big cities were the strongest base for remain while towns and less urbanised areas provided the main platform for the leave vote. Populations of the former tend to be young (and getting younger), better educated, more diverse (and increasingly so), more likely to work in professional-creative ‘cosmopolitan’ occupations, and less likely to own their home. They are also more socially liberal, pluralistic in their identity and relaxed about social change. In contrast, the aging populations of smaller towns and rural areas are more nostalgic about the past, concerned about immigration and more socially conservative in their outlook.
While Brexit revealed deep cleavages, it gave little indication of how policymakers should respond to them. In a report published by the University of Southampton and New Local Government Network, ‘Place-based policymaking after Brexit: In search of the missing link?’, we explore differences in the outlooks and policy demands of citizens living in highly connected urban areas, and those residing in two types of location on the economic periphery: coastal-regional areas and post-industrial towns.
We show that while citizens’ priorities in different places are not polar opposites, they are sufficiently distinct to require a sensitive and differentiated response in terms of public policy. This is the profound challenge currently facing British government at both national and local levels.
Using survey data from the British Election Study, our work shows greater concern about cuts to the NHS and local services in post-industrial towns in particular and higher levels of concern about rising crime and the worsening condition of schools in those places and in provincial-coastal areas. At the same time, citizens in those same areas have more optimistic expectations than their counterparts in big cities about prospects after leaving the EU, for the NHS, for reducing immigration and for the economy in general. In the context of divided outlooks, and rising expectations in the heartlands of Brexit Britain, there is considerable pressure on policymakers to deliver.
Through interviews and consultations with senior officers in councils covering areas with a variety of economic profiles, along with policy specialists from the private sector and think tanks, our report explores current understandings and debates of place-based policymaking and its prospects as a solution. It identifies three types of place-based approach that were recognised by participants:
- Deciding – breaking from the one-size-fits-all mindset, this builds on ideas about the value of devolution and local decision-making in terms of local knowledge and accountability.
- Coordinating – through emphasis on joined-up thinking and action, this rests on the value of bringing together a combined effort from a variety of agencies to meet local needs.
- Promoting – reflecting the importance of place to local communities, environment and economies, this aims to preserve identity and culture through asserting the virtues or ‘brand’ of a particular area.
Notwithstanding these different rationales, our study finds striking consistency in the topics on which place-based approaches are focused, despite the varied economic and social profiles of areas: economic growth, social care, housing and transport were commonly identified as challenges by policy-makers. In the report we argue, based on this, that there is a fourth, missing rationale for place-based policy:
- Matching – rests on the view that we need place-based approaches that more strongly match policy responses to the circumstances and contexts of diverse places, with input from national, regional and local decision-makers. The objective is to match policy responses on the economy, infrastructure, welfare and culture to the circumstances and context of a place. Such an approach would start with an honest audit of where a locality stands in the global economy and identification of bespoke policy responses.
Place-based policy-making needs to embrace the more strategic, ambitious and forward-looking approach that a matching placed-based policymaking could deliver. In post-Brexit Britain it is needed to bring the right policies into play for the particular needs and expectations of different places. This could be the missing link, but to be delivered it will demand different actions from government at all levels and a final break from the one-size-fits-all philosophy that dominates in political and media circles.
Will Jennings, professor of political science and public policy, Gerry Stoker, professor of governance, both of University of Southampton; and Adam Lent, director, New Local Government Network