There’s a term in labour economics used to describe the lasting impacts of recession and how cyclical unemployment can become structural unemployment.
Hysteresis explains the persistence of unemployment long after the recovery because people have either lost their skills, or their skills are now obsolete, or they have become disillusioned and depressed.
This theory charts an especially difficult human story and it’s one that has worrying parallels with the structural cynicism that now exists in towns struggling to regenerate high streets and rebuild confidence. In many economically depressed parts of the country, despite one of the Government’s declared levelling up missions being to see more pride in place, the opposite is happening.
Even though money is pouring into these areas, scepticism is hardening into a reflexive cynicism and civic pride is dangerously low.
Over the last few years I have spoken with hundreds of people in deprived towns and, while apathy is a familiar foe for anyone working with communities to deliver positive regeneration plans, I’m starting to sense a deeper, more worrying trend that has not gone unnoticed by council officials.
In one Midlands town, that had benefitted from a multi-million pound Towns Fund award, for example, officers were bewildered at why there was so little excitement around their regeneration plans. So they asked me to speak to businesses to find out where the cynicism was coming from.
What I discovered was that people didn’t feel involved in the plans, had little faith they would positively impact on their life and felt there was an absence of vision and insufficient leadership.
I’ve heard the same story in many other parts of the country and there is now a considerable constituency of people who have lost hope that things can get better. In many of these towns there has been so little investment in decades, so many broken promises and so many false dawns that towering levels of distrust have become the norm.
What makes this all the more difficult is that such views are often at odds with a genuine desire of politicians at all levels to dramatically improve areas.
In Middlesbrough, for example, there’s incredibly ambitious work being done to build the first homes in the town centre for a generation. Yet, this has been met by cynicism. “Why would I want to live somewhere where I’d get a brick thrown through my window at 3am?” was a typical response we received in focus groups.
Similarly, in Southampton, there are ambitious £20million plans to make the Portswood district greener, reduce traffic and create widened footways for al fresco dining. Yet cynicism and opposition is still encountered from some quarters, despite the promise of new investment. “You can’t do that kind of regeneration here,” one business owner told me. “It only works in middle class areas.”
Incredibly, there is even a campaign for the £20million of funding to be handed back to government.
Of course, pride in place is difficult to measure and the Government’s Levelling Up White Paper acknowledges that “survey-based measures of pride in place are still in their infancy”.
But with recent reports showing that, despite over £11billion being poured into towns through various levelling up initiatives, residents in so-called red wall seats have noticed little difference and still feel their communities are overlooked, there should be cause for concern.
As we pore over levelling up lessons in years to come, I have no doubt that the question of how Britain can do more to boost pride in place will be central. It is something that Civic Voice, the national charity for the civic movement in England, has been championing for many years.
If we’re to lift people’s ambitions and instil more faith in making places better, then two areas must be addressed: involving communities more in regeneration decisions and discovering local leaders that have a vision for their area and understand how to foster civic pride.
The first of these points is something the Government recognises, as can be seen in their guidance for the Town’s Fund, which states that “plans made with the communities they affect are most likely to be successful”. The problem is this isn’t happening everywhere. Communities often don’t feel heard or invested in projects and they are sick of regeneration ‘being done to them’ rather than with them.
Equally important is the need to establish a better understanding of pride in place and produce leaders that know how to engender it across the communities they represent.
In Japan, many municipalities have adopted ‘civic pride charters’ which provide a clear explanation as to how pride in place is formed and who drives it.
In Europe, there are plenty of leaders who also take this responsibility seriously. Take Kris Declercq, the mayor of Roeselare, a regional centre in Flanders, Belgium, for example. Civic pride and a strong local identity are at the heart of his politics. Every baby born there is given a ‘born in Roeselare’ sleepsuit, he’s commissioned an infectious anthem celebrating the town and announced his vision for Roeselare at a large public meeting where every councillor got on stage and signed his manifesto.
It’s a leadership style typified by an approach to win hearts and minds, collaborate and engage widely with businesses and communities.
While mayoral devolution is still in its infancy in the UK, this model of leadership has yet to properly catch on. But that’s not to say there aren’t already inspiring new models of local leadership and governance emerging elsewhere.
In Possilpark, Glasgow, police, social housing providers, health experts and business owners are working together to support their local community, with the financial support of the Possilpark BID.
I’ve been particularly struck by the impact of some of their interventions. A few Decembers back, for example, they introduced a Christmas tree with individually decorated baubles that paid tribute to people in the area who had lost their lives due to knife crime. Previous Christmas trees had been vandalised or set on fire, meaning celebrations were effectively cancelled. But this new approach ensured the tree became a veritable shrine. It helped boost festive spirit and ensured local traders enjoyed a crime-free Christmas and surge in takings.
In many ways that tree is symbolic of the struggle to revive pride in place. Without properly rooting itself, it’s merely a cosmetic intervention that will not last. But when it lays down real roots it can be a catalyst to bring people together to achieve the type of regeneration that will make a real difference to peoples’ lives – so people can feel proud of where they live.
If current ministers are going to meet their target of seeing pride in place rise in every area of the UK by 2030, they should be studying leadership like this closely. Politicians and policy makers of all colours should take note of the power of place leadership and partnership working. Because raising people’s ambitions and giving them hope that their community can improve is much harder than simply writing cheques in Whitehall.
‘Pride in place’ will be the topic of the IPM's next CPD webinar on the 28th June, which is open to all to take part in this discussion.
The Institute of Place Management is the professional body and learned society for people passionate about places. It is open to place managers and leaders, policy makers and academics.