Civic pride plays an important role in supporting place-based policy. Owen Garling, Jack Shaw and Michael Kenny share the evidence in their new report to inform policymaking.
Boris Johnson’s resignation as Prime Minister means that uncertainty hangs over the future of the government’s much vaunted plans for levelling up the United Kingdom. In particular, what will happen to some of the less well-defined objectives, such as the focus on the importance of ‘pride in place’ in achieving the stated ambition to “restore a sense of community, local pride and belonging”?
At the moment, it is not clear what the position of the two remaining candidates in the leadership contest is on tackling regional inequalities. Whilst both contenders agreed with the importance of levelling up at the recent debate, attention now will turn to whether, or indeed how, this manifests itself in policy terms.
Why should we continue to focus on pride in place? Whilst it is a relatively new addition to the British political vocabulary, the idea that people have an emotional connection to the places where they live is a simple one, and one that pre-dates ideas of levelling up. Think, for example, of the ways in which the architecture of the great municipal towns and cities in the north of England echoes the confidence of their 19th century leaders. Think also of the passions and rivalries that are stirred amongst supporters of different sports clubs and the gaps that are left in their communities when they are forced to close. See, for example, the impact that the expulsion of its football team from the English Football League had on the town of Bury in 2019.
Having pride in the places where they live contributes to people’s feelings of belonging and connection. Both of which, in turn, contribute to the social fabric of places. In our report, we argue that this sense of civic pride plays an important role in boosting social capital, participation and trust – all of which contribute to the ‘seed capital’ required for economic growth.
Our research also highlights the relationship between feelings of civic pride and the prosperity of places. The authors of the Levelling Up White Paper took a particularly ‘declinist’ perspective of pride in place. See for example the framing of one of the four main policy objectives to “restore a sense of community, local pride and belonging, especially in those places where they have been lost.”
But in our report, we argue that this reduction in the pride that people have in their place is not necessarily accurate. Equally, the idea that pride in place is lacking in those ‘left-behind places’ that have been a focus of government policy in the years since the Brexit referendum needs to be contested. Instead, the available data shows that there is a mixed record across the country, with one of the most deprived regions, the North East, citing higher levels of pride than London. We believe that this is a topic that merits more investigation.
In a time of growing inflation – an increase in prices of 8.2 per cent in the 12 months to June 2022 with further increases forecast – and with more and more people struggling to make ends meet, surely investing in pride in place is less important than getting food in people’s mouths and enabling them to pay their energy bills? After all, what use is a hanging basket in a town centre to people who need to make use of one of the 2,500 food banks across the country?
If the scale of ambition in relation to pride in place is at the level of hanging baskets, then, yes, perhaps it is just a nice to have. However, in the report we reflect upon some of the key policy tools that are most relevant to the challenge of enhancing the cultural life of poorer towns and left-behind areas, and how these can boost the feelings of place-identity which can – as we outline – make an important contribution to some of the other key objectives that UK policymakers are most interested in, such as economic growth and social capital.
These include the role played by high streets and town centres in instilling a sense of pride in their communities. According to polling by YouGov carried out on behalf of Power to Change in 2022, 69 per cent of people say that the decline of their high streets will adversely affect their pride in their local area.
Regeneration is widely cited as one of the main policy tools that authorities can use to revitalise the economic fortunes of a place. But the idea that regeneration is the automatic route to boosting economic growth and pride in place overlooks some of the complexities and challenges that need to be faced if these policy aims are to be aligned.
In addition to plans for the regeneration of sites and places within poorer areas, a focus on cultural provision, and the renewal of heritage sites, also provide an important part of the policy toolkit that might be deployed in relation to the pride in place objective. There is evidence to suggest that such initiatives are likely to have positive impacts on the civic infrastructure of the places where they are located, and sometimes on their local economies through job creation and the development of a tourist economy. But there has been much less investigation of, and evidence gathered about, their potential emotional and psychological benefits.
So, what should be done? In our report we argue that if government is serious about boosting pride, it needs to be more ambitious for the communities it serves. We believe that the next Prime Minister should increase the size of the Community Ownership Fund from its current £150 million to £1 billion. As part of this – and to ensure long-term sustainability – we also encourage an investment in the capacity of communities. We believe that inspiration can be taken from the US Community Revitalization Fund, which allocates $500 million of its $10 billion to community capacity building.
In our report, we also recommend that government commits to a ‘Minimum Standard Guarantee’ so that communities across the country have access to a basic level of social and cultural amenities; adopt a ‘green is good’ principle and legislate to ensure that green spaces are protected in perpetuity and not threatened by encroachment; and enshrine community ownership in law and extend powers to fix up high streets so that communities have a say over what happens in the neighbourhoods that they live, and place the onus on government – both national and local – to unlock onward devolution where it has stalled.
Finally, we suggest that a Minister for Civic Pride is created to drive focus across Westminster to ensure that departments are boosting pride in a way that meaningfully impacts the lives of millions of Britons.
Through our Townscapes series we have offered a deeper analysis of how towns are faring across the regions and nations of Great Britain. Two themes run through all of them and feature strongly in this latest report. First, policymakers need to be able to take a more fine-grained view of the history and prospects for all of our places if we are to develop solutions that are ‘fit for place’ as well as fit for purpose. Second, and perhaps most importantly, whether levelling up continues as a rallying cry, the inequalities faced by places across the country need to remain core to the government’s policy agenda.
Report: Townscapes: Pride in Place
Image: Story’s Field Centre by Alan Williams. Image courtesy of Eddington, Cambridge