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Written on 16 Aug 2021 by Professor Michael Kenny and Dr Davide Luca

Levelling up policies should target disparities between entire regions and within them

An emerging “geography of disillusion” poses a major challenge for democratic European countries, write Michael Kenny and Davide Luca.

The Johnson government’s declared ambition to ‘level up’ some of Britain’s poorest regions has sparked considerable debate about the causes of territorial inequalities and the policies needed to tackle them. One key dilemma which this agenda raises is whether the focus of policymakers should be on disparities between entire regions or on differences – for instance between core cities and their hinterlands – within them.

Urban density and political disenchantment across Europe

In a newly published paper, we present fresh evidence on the link between place of residence and differences in social and political attitudes between urban and rural places across 30 European countries. And our findings have some bearing upon this dilemma. We find that the polarisation between urban and non-metropolitan places is significant across the whole continent and is especially strong across Western Europe.

Our analysis shows how – compared to those living in inner urban cores – respondents living in suburbs, towns and rural areas are far more likely to be socially conservative in their personal outlook, more dissatisfied with the functioning of democracy in their country, and less likely to trust the political system, even though they are – strikingly – more likely to participate in it, especially when it comes to voting. However, while our analysis highlights some stark geographical variance in attitudes on issues such as immigration and globalisation, we do not find significant differences on issues which have traditionally been at the core of left-right cleavages, such as support for welfare state redistribution.

France has been depicted as a paradigm case of the new spatial inequalities, which appear to be reflected in a clear political divide between its main urban centres, such as Paris and Lyon – which are ‘globalised’, ‘gentrified’, and increasingly inhabited by bourgeois bohemians (the ‘bobos’) and cosmopolitans, the banlieues populated by immigrants of recent arrival, and the remaining medium and small-sized cities and rural areas which have experienced marked economic decline and where long-time immigrants and the ‘white’ working classes tend to live. Our results confirm this characterisation, as France is the European country with the starkest geographical differences in political attitudes.

An equally significant urban-rural divide is discernible among British respondents. While differences are slightly less pronounced than across the Channel, small town and countryside dwellers in Britain report markedly lower levels of satisfaction with democracy and lower levels of trust in national parties and European institutions, and are much less optimistic about the benefits of immigration to the UK.   

These findings have a bearing upon two key contemporary political issues. One is the growth of political disenchantment in many non-metropolitan locations across Europe, and the fertile soil this provides for nationalist and populist parties and causes. The other is an emerging discourse, in many different countries, about what kinds of policy agenda and political response are required to re-engage the inhabitants of what are commonly termed ‘left-behind’ places.

Addressing political disenchantment

The polarisation of electorates across the urban-rural divide is by no means a new, or recent, phenomenon. At the peak of the Industrial Revolution, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many European countries were divided between the interests of rural and small-town dwellers, engaged in agricultural production, and those of urban residents, experiencing a new spatial economic order dominated by manufacturing. Yet, in the second half of the last century this stark divide faded partially, as new political cleavages, organised around economic issues, class divisions and the role of the state in society, emerged.

The reappearance of geographically rooted political divisions, in recent years, signals a new geographical fracture in European societies which, in the long-term, may have significant implications for the challenges associated with weakening social cohesion and growing disenchantment with democracy. Our findings suggest the importance of a place-sensitive understanding of these phenomena, and simultaneously serve to undermine overly generalised characterisations of ‘rural consciousness’ or ‘left-behind’ disillusionment. The clear gradient that we identify in terms of political attitudes and social values, and their correlation with different spatial scales and kinds of community – ranging from metropolitan centres at one end of the spectrum through to more remote, rural areas at the other – suggest the need for a detailed and contextual understanding of the geography of political disenchantment. A richer appreciation of the geographical specificities of different rural areas, towns and cities is integral to a more contextually informed and tailored policy response to the challenges posed by inter- and intra-regional inequality. Place-sensitive policies need to reflect an understanding of the distinctive history and economic characteristics of a place (or its region), but also their degree of connectivity to large urban agglomerations.

A stronger focus on intangible factors and social connections

Policy initiatives designed to address territorial inequalities often focus on measures like levels of income or employment, and many policymakers continue to believe that tackling these kinds of unequal outcomes for different groups of people is more important than focusing upon differences between places.

Our results challenge this orthodoxy because they highlight that growing forms of political disenchantment are not solely linked to economic conditions. Across Europe, political disenchantment is not highest in the poorest rural areas. Similarly, individual measures of contextual economic disadvantage only marginally explain differences in attitude along the urban-rural continuum. Moreover, in most European countries, small town and rural dwellers report significantly higher levels of life satisfaction, even when they also express higher degrees of political disenchantment and lower levels of trust towards national and supranational institutions.

Policy programmes that only address economic opportunities are unlikely to be sufficient to tackle contemporary forms of disenchantment. For example, while differences in satisfaction with public health service provision along the urban-rural continuum are not large, we still find systematically lower levels of satisfaction among countryside dwellers than among urbanites, especially in countries like France and Portugal. The intertwined challenges of demographic ageing, population shrinkage, and public budget constraints may well increase existing pressures upon the provision of key public services in rural and more isolated areas in the near future. This is an area to which policymakers should pay particular attention, especially as research on the impacts of public austerity following the 2008 financial crisis in the UK has highlighted how a reduction in public service provision can led to a significant rise in support for populist politicians.

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  • About the author

    Professor Michael Kenny, Co-Director, Bennett Institute for Public Policy

    Professor Kenny directs the Institute’s place and public policy programme.   Learn more

    Mike Kenny
  • About the author

    Dr Davide Luca

    Dr Davide Luca is an Assistant Professor at the University of Cambridge, Department of Land Economy, and a By-Fellow at Churchill College. He is also a Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics. His research explores the links between power, place, and public policy. It is interdisciplinary, cutting across Economic Geography, Public Policy, and Political Economy, and covers three main themes: (1) spatial inequality and political discontent; (2) the politics of territorial development; (3) local governance and public policy delivery.

    Davide Luca