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Will Theresa May’s ‘bribe’-tainted regional fund make the mistake of belittling the communities it tries to help?

This scheme must do more than simply rely on an investment-led approach to create jobs. It must be human centred

Sarah Longlands
Tuesday 05 March 2019 17:50 GMT
Communities secretary James Brokenshire denies Stronger Town Fund is a bribe for MPs to back Brexit deal

The announcement of a £1.6bn Stronger Towns Fund is a welcome return to the idea that place matters, and that trickle-down economics doesn’t cut it. But it must also avoid rehashing an approach to regional development that shames and devalues the people it is trying to help.

This isn’t the first time a Conservative government has launched an area-based fund, but its launch in the shadow of Brexit has made it look like the prime minister was offering a cynical bung for votes from affected MPs.

In truth, it is encouraging that more than two years after the Brexit vote, the government has finally got the message that many communities feel excluded from the UK’s political and economic system.

The UK has had its fair share of funding pots targeted at so called “left behind communities”. Previous schemes have sought to target public money on those areas most damaged by episodes of economic boom and bust. The challenge for government is to consider what can be learned from these previous schemes.

Firstly, this new scheme is being implemented in the context of 10 years of austerity which has filleted essential services, particularly for those who are most in need, children, older people, and people without a job. As IPPR North’s State of the North 2018 report showed, total public spending in the north has fallen by £6.3bn in real terms since 2009-10. So, the Stronger Towns pledge of £583m to the north has a lot of ground to cover.

Creating stronger towns depends on stronger communities. To achieve real change in people’s opportunities and sense of agency requires more than a few employment support schemes with a bit of infrastructure thrown in for good measure. If the government is serious, this will need more than warm words but dedicated capacity to actually encourage active participation.

As long as the government’s intended outcomes for this fund are clear, then, in the spirit of localism and devolution, there should be some freedom and flexibility to decide who manages the money, but what is essential is a system of clear accountability back to the community who is supposed to be the end beneficiary.

There isn’t and shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all approach to area-based change, particularly in an age of devolution.

Other area-based schemes have been overly dependent on a property-led approach to regeneration. Success was often measured in terms of rising land and property prices. While this strategy may have changed the look and feel of the place, all too often it made precious little difference to the residents.

The focus on job creation is inevitable but this scheme must do more than simply rely on an investment-led approach to create jobs. It must be human centred in its approach, and that means helping strengthen and support the ability of people in an area to live a life that they have a reason to value. That would be an approach which brings in childcare, lifelong learning, sport and the arts too and which understands the impact of technology on our lives.

How the Stronger Towns Fund is used is just as important as the outcomes.

The impact of government funding can be multiplied by supporting good-quality, well-paid local jobs, skills development and apprenticeships as well using the procurement process to support local supply chains including small local businesses and social enterprises. Crucially, the resources for Stronger Towns should not just become a slush fund for consultancies.

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The government must also be wary of falling into the hackneyed narrative of towns vs cities. The issue is not that cities and city regions aren’t important they are but that the urban policy debate has so far failed to articulate the role of smaller cities and towns in supporting the UK’s future prosperity. This needs to change.

IPPR North has argued that we need to define the value of a place beyond that narrow metric of productivity. We should examine a wide basket of indicators, as well as recognising the broad reciprocity between places across the UK.

Finally, language is important. It must be taken seriously in how this fund is used and promoted. I find the lexicon of “left behind” problematic. Previous area-based initiatives were often characterised as supporting “deprived” areas or communities that were “socially excluded”. This language of “otherness” immediately belittles people and place, contributing to a deficit mindset.

We need to be authentic about the challenges people face, but as the fund is rolled out it must be focused on people’s potential, rather than harping on about their economic and social isolation from a place of Westminster privilege.

Sarah Longlands leads IPPR North, IPPR’s dedicated think tank for the north of England.

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