How to Help ‘Left Behind’ Places
A boy born in Blackpool can expect to live nine years less than one born in Chelsea. I found out this startling fact when visiting Blackpool for a piece of work CLES is working on – evaluating the ‘Transience Project’, a pioneering new approach to public service delivery.
Whilst visiting, I could not help but feel that the town – which at one point was a holiday destination for one in five Britons – is an area that has been ‘left behind’ in terms of its economic and social opportunity. The explosion of cheap flights to Europe has led Blackpool’s (and other seaside towns across the country) tourist industry – and the economy that relied upon it – to crumble. The ensuing poverty breeds and attracts a range of social problems – from drugs to crime among others.
The Government’s role
Government policy shows concern but little action. Deliberate policies from central government aimed towards agglomeration have led to the incubation of ‘superstar cities’ such as Manchester, where worker’s productivity is higher, but so is the cost of living (which often more than off-sets the extra pay these city dwellers receive). All of this leads to regional disparities increasing – a few superstar cities and city centres grow richer as ‘left-behind’ places become more and more deprived.
In a pre-welfare-state society, poorer, more disadvantaged and hence less mobile residents of ‘left-behind’ places would have faced the difficult choice between moving to find work or facing destitution. The welfare state can be viewed as not only a policy to tame capitalism’s most brutal characteristics but also a policy that, by enabling subsistence within places where living costs are low, traps people within those areas.
How can policy help?
Economic theory would suggest workers should move from less productive areas of the country to more productive ones. Government could legislate to encourage more people to move. Yet moving for work means cutting social ties, leaving friends and family. Even if people do make the move, housing in superstar cities is increasingly unaffordable. Furthermore, encouraging an exodus of well-educated residents from ‘left-behind’ areas is not sustainable, as it further deepens those area’s socio-economic problems (such as an eroding tax base).
Governments should focus on developing strong, resilient economies wherever people find themselves, rather than having to force people to choose between work and social ties. Being close to family will become ever more important over time, with an ageing population and an increased chance of having to care for elderly relatives.
We cannot wait for the illusory trickle-down to assist left-behind regions. Boosting superstar cities will only further deepen regional inequalities. Instead of focusing on people-centred remedies to addressing poverty (extra welfare, reforming the labour market) the government needs to take a more place-based focus in its approach to economic development.
CLES has shown how local wealth building and ‘anchor institutions’ can be harnessed to develop local wealth building, leading to additional spend (and the employment and social benefits that result) being retained, a process that requires no new spending or legislation to occur. In Blackpool CLES will, over the next few months, be evaluating the effectiveness of the Council’s Transience Project, which aims to support the town’s unseen, vulnerable residents that live in multiple occupancy housing off the radar of support services.
Given the drop in the pound and subsequent rise in the cost of foreign holidays since the Brexit vote, perhaps Blackpool will benefit from Brits looking for an affordable seaside break. Yet, if we are ever to ‘take back control’, politicians need to fully grasp the importance of place, and focus on community-based economic development policies to ensure regional inequality is addressed.