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“Power in Place”: Why Focusing on Communities Can Help Address UK Poverty

Policy@Manchester

6 min read Partner content

Inequalities between people and places are major and persistent challenges for the UK. Yet decades of policy interventions have largely failed to close the gaps that exist between different groups. Now a major new publication by Policy@Manchester, The University of Manchester’s policy engagement institute, suggests that embedding change needs to start with the local.

For more than a century there have been policies and approaches that have attempted to reduce inequalities between different groups and areas in the UK. But the uncomfortable fact is that many of the communities that were the poorest 100 years ago remain the poorest in today’s society.

If we are to make progress, finding new ways to tackle the entrenched inequalities that exist between and within areas demands new ideas and new approaches, built on a foundation of robust research evidence.

An important contribution to that evidence-led approach is a newly launched collection of articles by Policy@Manchester, The University of Manchester’s policy engagement institute. Power in Place: Evidence-led solutions for thriving and sustainable communities, pulls together nine expert think pieces that cover a range of topics relating to the role of place in policymaking.

In his introduction to the report, Chair of the UK2070 Commission Lord Kerslake, explains that the growing weight of evidence means that the scale and impact of place-based inequalities has become impossible for policymakers to ignore.

“Those people who questioned the scale and depth of inequalities have been exposed as modern ‘flat earthers’,” he writes. “Political rhetoric now needs to be translated into policies and programmes of action on the scale and with the urgency needed to meet these challenges.”

This new collection of articles provides a strong starting point for those actions, spanning a wide range of policy areas including tackling poverty, preventing ill health, and the importance of reskilling and green spaces. Common to all of the expert pieces is an appreciation of the importance of the local when it comes to delivering sustainable change that can start to shift the dial on deep-seated inequalities.

That emphasis on the local appears to be increasingly high on the agenda of government too. Minister for Levelling Up, Dehenna Davison MP, told PoliticsHome that government is already adopting a flexible approach that is tailored to the needs of particular areas.

“Proper place-based regeneration is central to our ambition to level up the whole of the UK,” she tells us. “We know that a 'one size fits all' approach to levelling up simply does not work. That is why we introduced Levelling Up Partnerships - bespoke interventions for areas that will deliver real change on issues that are important to the community.”

Fellow Conservative MP, Ben Everitt, who sits on the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Select Committee, agrees with the Minister that flexibility is key to delivering services that meet local need.  

“To fully deliver life changing opportunities for everyone in our country, undoing historic inequalities, we need to make sure that policy is stitched together across all areas,” he says. “Health, infrastructure, housing supply and quality, skills and economic investment should all fit with the local needs of people and families in local communities.”

However, the collection of articles suggests that in order to make a real difference current approaches need to go much further and much faster. Writing about the role of schools and schooling, for instance, Dr Carl Emery and Louisa Dawes calculate that if we stick to the current methods, it will take 500 years to close the educational attainment gap linked to poverty.

According to The University of Manchester’s researchers, one key to accelerating change is the active engagement of communities in shaping policy responses. A central theme that emerges throughout the new publication is the urgent need to find new mechanisms that enable those directly impacted by poverty to feed into policy debates.

That need for the inclusion of people and communities in policymaking is a common thread across all of the pieces in the collection. The report's authors are clear that, unless those directly experiencing disadvantage are engaged, change will be difficult to embed and maintain.

There is some optimism that a fundamental building block to support that engagement are political structures that move decision-making away from Whitehall and to the functional geographies within which people live.

The pivotal role of local leadership is also emphasised by Lord Kerslake in his introduction to the report. He strongly advocates an enhanced role for a re-empowered local government tier and, critically, for the inclusion of other voices.

“A place-based approach requires us to move away from being the most centralised nation in the developed world,” he writes. “This task is too important and complex to leave to government alone.”

Lord Kerslake’s point is supported by Rochdale MP Tony Lloyd, whose own constituency falls within the Greater Manchester Combined Authority areas. He tells PoliticsHome that, because the policy levers that can make a difference to the drivers of poverty lie at local level, local leadership must be a central part of the solution.

“Empowering local agencies and the community to work together can only happen place by place but when that happens it can transform attitudes and culture and it can change lives,” he tells us. “So, the challenge to central government running through Power in Place is yes, set objectives but empower localism to deliver what it cannot.”

Echoing the points made by Lloyd, fellow Greater Manchester MP for Wythenshawe and Sale East, Mike Kane, said: “Some of the challenges identified within Power in Place and within our communities could be addressed locally by engaging with anti-social behaviour, targeted public health initiatives, opportunities for secure housing and work - those on the ground understand their local areas better than any graph or chart will ever do.”

Kane added: “Chronic underfunding of local authorities over the past 13 years has left services which could support our communities and address inequalities utterly hollowed out. If Levelling up is a genuine aspiration, funding must be delivered to those who can effect change locally.”

If government is to meet the challenges set out in Power in Place, contributors across the report warn that bringing about systemic change is not something that can be achieved quickly. They highlight the need to invest time and resources in creating community-based relationships and networks that can provide the cornerstone for change.  That will require consistent and long-term financial support to build local social infrastructure in left-behind communities.

It is a message that University of Manchester experts hope policymakers hear. In a nation that continues to struggle with inequality across a range of areas, this new collection provides a strong starting point to develop new, evidence-based approaches that can deliver lasting change. By focusing on creating new relationships and partnerships and placing lived experience at the centre of the debate, it provides a practical roadmap for how we can start to narrow the gaps that exist between people and places and become a more equal country as a result.

For more information about ‘Power in Place’ and to read the collection of thought leadership pieces from Policy@Manchester, please click here.

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