Yesterday NLGN hosted a roundtable with senior local government executives and a handful of academics to discuss ‘place based policy’ after Brexit.
The starting point of the discussion was work by Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker of the University of Southampton. Over the last few years, their work has explored the relationship between socially liberal attitudes, and the extent to which places are incorporated into the global economy. Their analysis largely suggests that the country is fractured, between areas which have benefited from increased globalisation and are characterised by more positive attitudes towards migration, and places which have remained disconnected from the global economy, associated with less positive attitudes towards migrants. This relationship reflects a classic psychological principle – altruism is less common when scarcity and competition are high.
One of the most striking and memorable points made in the discussion was that Cornwall, which voted to leave by 57%, was also a significant recipient of EU funding. This seemingly irrational trend can actually be seen across the country. The five areas of the UK that receive the most funding from the European Union all voted “Leave,” while four of the five areas that receive the least voted “Remain.”
This is because, as research has shown, EU structural funds are mainly allocated to poorer areas with greater need. This therefore supports Will and Gerry’s analysis. For the most part, the redistribution functions of the EU – even in tandem with the redistribution functions of the British state – have not been sufficient to eliminate discrepancies between the economic prospects of Islington and Thurrock. The influence of place on prosperity is a groove which runs deeper into the structural fabric of our political economy than our existing top down redistribution functions can fill in.
As one participant from a strongly vote leave county reflected, their residents don’t care about how much local investment in growth there had been, because whatever it was spent on, “it was never for them”. They don’t care that most of the money raised by local business rates goes somewhere else, because if it had been kept, “it was never going to be for them either”. This sense of hopeless left-behind-ism begs the question: is redistribution, on the terms set out by a distant, inaccessible state – national, supranational, or local – really enough to give people a sense of justice, empowerment or control over their lives and collective prosperity? Or do our whole systems for place shaping investment need to become more democratically accessible, more permitting of local creativity, and ultimately more enabling of places to self-determine with regards to the shape and fit of their own prosperity?
As highlighted by Future Cities, crowdfunding may be one part of the answer. But for bigger projects, serious public funds are needed. In just under seven weeks’ time, a national election will be held to select a government that will steer us through Brexit, make decisions about how EU funds are replaced, but also – with any luck – set out a clear plan for the future resourcing of local public services. The Local Government Finance Bill, which sets out a radical but nonetheless highly mono-cultural reform to local government finance, will fall, because there is insufficient time to complete its passage into law before Parliament rises. The election creates a window of opportunity for those in local government who dare to think differently about their financial settlement. Now is the time to be making a lot of noise about alternatives. For a few weeks, everything is on the table. People are ready to hear that things can be done differently. They just need to be invited to feel like change will make a difference for them.