Levelling up in Walsall will continue to fail if we do not ditch one-size-fits-all approach
In Walsall, there’s a feeling of deja vu about levelling up. In the early 2000s, this Black Country borough was a key focus for regeneration by the Blair-era Labour government.
The New Art Gallery opened with National Lottery and EU funding, Crown Wharf retail park launched with big brands like Next and TK Maxx, Walsall College unveiled a new campus, and connectivity was boosted with the completion of a new ring road. Walsall was, for a time, the envy of the West Midlands.
But the turnaround never materialised. Today Walsall is one of the poorest performing areas in the United Kingdom. The economy is underperforming, with local residents more than a quarter less productive than the typical British worker. Household incomes in the area are low, averaging around £16,000 compared to just over £20,000 across the UK. And the area’s social fabric is fraying, with rising levels of crime and a town centre described as “rough”, “forgotten”, and “depressing”.
In some parts of the south of the borough economic inactivity rates among women are as high as 45 per cent
So what went wrong? Onward’s work in Walsall, published yesterday, points to a series of problems in the area’s industrial mix, strained public services, and low community resilience. But our research kept coming back to one answer, summarised neatly by a local leader we spoke to: “there is no one Walsall”.
People we met locally in interviews and focus groups impressed upon us that Walsall as a borough is characterised by large internal differences between towns like Aldridge, Bloxwich, Brownhills, Darlaston, and Willenhall. Ian, an apprentice in his 20s, told us that “you've got the proper rich areas and then you go somewhere else where it's like a different planet." For policymakers and politicians, that suggests that what works in one neighbourhood won’t work in another. So trying to adopt a one size fits all approach to fixing the area’s problems in the past has meant stalled progress and repeated false starts.
The data backs up this theory. Incomes are vastly different across the borough. Parts of the east including Aldridge and Streetly have similar levels of income to places like Chalford in Stroud or Bishop Stortford in Hertfordshire. But on the same measure places like Darlaston in the west of the borough sit at the 5th percentile nationally. Life expectancies differ between the most and least deprived neighbourhoods by around 30 years. In some parts of the south of the borough economic inactivity rates among women are as high as 45 per cent, while other neighbourhoods are much closer to the national average of around 25 per cent – a pattern which some local leaders argued was driven by cultural norms in the area’s large ethnic minority population.
For the government’s levelling up project, the lesson from Walsall is clear. Tackling long-term disadvantage in left behind areas means complimenting national investments with hyper-local programmes. It’s only at this level of granularity that interventions can be informed by local intelligence, properly targeted at the right barriers, and responsive to community concerns. The sort of big ticket investments that came to Walsall 20 years ago were a helpful boost, but not enough to regenerate the borough without tackling these different pockets of deprivation.
These sorts of neighbourhood-level interventions can’t be delivered from Whitehall. It can even be a challenge to deliver them through local authorities or metro-mayors. Instead, they need to be driven by groups rooted locally, including parish councils and community organisations. While these were a big part of the Levelling Up White Paper they have been largely absent from the new government’s approach to supporting left behind areas to date. Onward’s work in Walsall suggests they need to be front and centre, so that in 20 years time the borough can finally realise its potential.
Adam Hawksbee, deputy director and head of levelling up at Onward.
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