Owen Garling explores the relative importance of ‘pride in place’ for levelling up - particularly during economically challenging times - and how it might be more effectively measured.
That people feel pride in the place that they live is something that has been recognised for a long time. Many people identify with the town or city of their birth long after they leave it, and this sense of connection is something that we see from support for local football teams right through to voting for which UK city should have the privilege of hosting the 2023 Eurovision song contest on behalf of this year’s winners Ukraine.
With the publication of the government’s Levelling Up White Paper earlier in the year it became clear that this idea of ‘pride in place’ is one that policymakers are looking to take seriously and harness to achieve their aims of levelling up all areas of the country. Pride features both as one of the White Paper’s four overarching objectives – “Restore a Sense of Community, Local Pride and Belonging” – as well as one of the twelve ‘missions’ – “By 2030, pride in place, such as people’s satisfaction with their town centre and engagement in local culture and community, will have risen in every area of the UK, with the gap between top performing and other areas closing.”
To know whether this objective has been met and the mission achieved, it will be necessary to understand the different levels of pride in places across the country. But can a concept like pride in place be quantified? Given its central position in the White Paper, the authors of the government’s Levelling Up White Paper obviously hope that it can. Delving into the Technical Annex accompanying the White Paper reveals a bit more caution with the analysts noting that “Survey-based measures of pride in place are still in their infancy. These measures are subjective and, in some cases, not yet developed or designed to enable analysis at a spatial level.”
This question is one that we explore in our recently published Bennett Institute for Public Policy report on Pride in Place. One of the issues that we identify is the difficulty of measuring pride at the most appropriate level. People can have pride in their street, their neighbourhood, their community, their city or even their country. At present there is not enough granular date focusing on pride at an individual or community level to be able to reliably quantify pride. Instead, policymakers often rely on proxy measures such as feelings of belonging and community spirit. However, the source for this proxy data – the Community Life Survey –is only presented at a regional level. Previously this data was available at a local authority level, which itself might not provide enough granularity.
We suggest that one approach that could address the tension between having generic measures that can be used to compare places and demonstrate whether “the gap between top performing and other areas [is] closing” and the need for a more nuanced understanding of what matters to individuals and communities, would be to have a blended approach of nationally-set metrics alongside locally-created metrics. This could provide both the specific and the generic and would have the added advantage of engaging individuals and communities in expressing what it is that really matters to them.
Our report also draws attention to the lessons that can be learnt from the measurement of wellbeing. Ideas of wellbeing and its measurement have a longer history in the public policy sphere than pride in place but is similar in its resistance to easy categorisation and measurement. This has not stopped wellbeing being identified as an area of growing interest to policymakers with an accompanying academic literature charting the ongoing disagreements on how it should be measured. Colleagues at the Bennett Institute have written extensively on this subject, and one of the advantages of working at such an interdisciplinary institution is the ability to tap into related fields of expertise.
Despite the ongoing arguments around wellbeing, it recently made its debut as part of the Office for National Statistics’ quarterly data release alongside more traditional measures such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and other emerging measures such as Natural Capital. A lesson therefore also needs to be taken about the length of time that it can take for these types of measures to reach the mainstream. Our report suggests that to support the process that measures of pride need to undergo, an iterative approach to measurement should be developed that enables them to be developed and tested in real time. This will require a major increase in the evaluation of government projects starting from a particularly low bar. The National Audit Office noted that in 2019 just eight per cent of government expenditure on major projects – £35 billion out of £432 billion – had robust evaluation plans in place.
But in the face of a deepening cost of living crisis being felt across the country, particularly in those areas most ‘in need’ of levelling up, should we be focusing on issues such as pride in place? Is it not, perhaps in some way, too trivial an issue to be thinking about and for policy makers to be considering at a time when it is estimated that two-thirds of the UK population will be living in fuel poverty by the beginning of 2023.
We would argue not.
A sense of connection to the places that they live is something that is felt by people across the country. As we show in our report, it is also something that is not necessarily linked with economic prosperity. The idea implicit in the Levelling Up White Paper that there has been a decline in pride, particularly in ‘left-behind’ areas is something that we contest in our report. As data from the Community Life Survey shows, there are signs that feelings of ‘belonging’ – an idea linked to pride – has been increasing in many places over time. At a regional level, the same data shows that a sense of neighbourhood belonging is higher in the northeast than other regions including the more economically successful London and the southeast.
Also, whilst the tangible and measurable elements of pride in place are of particular interest to policymakers for the reasons set out above, its intangible characteristics are perhaps more important as we enter what could be another period of national crisis. A connection with place, and a pride in that place, can provide a sense of hope for individuals and communities, that perhaps outweighs the other elements of pride that the government are interested in. As we note in our report, it is through periods of change that a sense of pride is often developed by communities; what the Environmental Psychologist Harold Proshansky – whose work is of particular relevance – calls the “anxiety and defensive function.”
Helping individuals and communities in the face of ever-worsening circumstances by understanding how their current sense of place, as well as the strong roots and narratives of how places have weathered similar problems in the past, is perhaps going to emerge as one of the most important elements of the government’s plans to level up the country.
Report: Townscapes: Pride in Place
This piece was initially published on the Academy of Social Science’s Living Standards and ‘Levelling Up’ hub. This hub showcases research evidence and thinking from the social sciences and offers informed perspectives on issues relating to living standards, equality, and the ‘levelling up’ policy agenda. It explores the challenges our society faces across the four nations of the UK, including addressing the current ‘cost of living crisis’.
Image credit: Kenny Eliason on Unsplash
The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s).