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Strength in roots: pride in place in left-behind places

Author: Marc Le Chevallier

  • Strength in roots: pride in place in left-behind places

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    Strength in roots: pride in place in left-behind places

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Abstract

The political focus on "restoring pride in place" in left-behind areas has increased recently, yet the precise connection between these concepts remains ambiguous. This paper examines existing literature on "left-behind places" and explores various dimensions including economic, social, political, and moral aspects. It also delves into the definitions of pride in place, highlighting its grassroots nature and its reliance on local agency. The paper argues that pride in place cannot be imposed from external interventions but is endogenously grown within communities. It suggests that the core relationship between both pride in place and left-behind areas lies in the moral realm: left-behind areas are embodied communities have less pride due to a lack of local agency and capacity to autonomously improve their area. Therefore, while government-funded initiatives may address certain aspects of pride in place (e.g. regenerating high streets), the most effective method to restore of pride in left-behind places requires empowering communities through bottom-up approaches and direct devolution of power.

Keywords: Levelling UP, Pride in Place, Left-Behind Places, Community Power, Agency, Strength in Roots

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Le Chevallier, M., (2024) “Strength in roots: pride in place in left-behind places”, New Vistas 10(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.36828/newvistas.253

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Published on
07 May 2024
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Introduction

Restoring “pride in place” in “left-behind areas” has become an important aspect of the Levelling Up Agenda which has been the Conservative Government’s primary policy approach to address regional inequality in the UK since 2019. However, despite the frequent use of the terms ‘pride in place’ and ‘left behind areas’ in political speeches and policy documents, the correlation between the terms is not clear. This article will attempt to address this issue by first reviewing the literature on left-behind areas through four different dimensions: economic, social, political, and moral. It will then juxtapose these definitions of left-behind areas with descriptions of pride in place. It will argue that the government is neglecting a central pillar of pride in place i.e. that it is an emotion that emerges from within an area rather than being artificially constructed from outside interventions. This article will argue for a ‘moral’ understanding of left-behind areas which means the best way to restore pride in place in these areas is to restore their sense of agency and identity.

Understanding left-behind areas

Since 2008, left-behind areas have become a dominant frame to describe geographical inequality in the anglophone world. According to Pike et al., the financial crash, and the political upheaval that followed in the mid-2010s (evident in the rise of right wing and left wing populist parties), brought to the political fore the millions of inhabitants living in post-industrial or disadvantaged areas, that had since the 1980s suffered from “decline and marginalization generated by the uneven effects of processes such as globalization and economic restructuring”. (Pike et al. 2023, 10). These areas were viewed by Pike as having been “overlooked by distant self-interested metropolitan elites” (ibid).

The first reference to the term in the UK was in 2014 with the publication of the book “Revolt on The Right: Explaining Support for The Radical Right in Britain” by Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin (2014). In a 2016 piece on the Brexit vote, Goodwin introduces his definition of the left-behind: “social groups that are united by a general sense of insecurity, pessimism and marginalisation, who do not feel as though elites, whether in Brussels or Westminster, share their values, represent their interests and genuinely empathize with their intense angst about rapid social, economic and cultural change” (Goodwin 2016, 224). The Brexit and Trump vote, he contends, was therefore a protest against the establishment. Entangled together in initial definitions of left behind people and places are economic, social, political and even moral factors. This ambiguity over the term's actual meaning, as well as the location of these left-behind areas, continues today. This article will attempt to overcome this ambiguity by exploring definitions of the term thematically.

From an economic perspective, left-behind areas are generally understood as having lower GDP per capita wich is usually caused by lower productivity, low wages, higher unemployment rates or low skills level (Martin et al. 2022; Sandbu 2020). For instance, an OECD report from 2016 found that “within their own borders, OECD countries are witnessing increasing gaps in GDP per capita between higher performing and lower performing regions (...) The gaps within countries between the top 10% regions with the highest productivity and the bottom seventy-five percent has grown by about sixty percent over the last two decades” (OECD 2016). (Secretary of State for Levelling Up 2022).

Other research, however, emphasises social factors when defining left behind places such as housing conditions, health outcomes, or educational attainment. Health outcomes are a particular issue as highlighted by work in the US (Case, Deaton 2020) and the UK (Cavallaro et al. 2024). Another social factor which has gained traction in the UK is social capital or infrastructure. The All-Party Parliamentary Group1 for Left-Behind Neighbourhoods define left-behind areas as having both high levels of poverty and low levels of social infrastructure (places to meet, community engagement, and connectivity) which then fuels other elements of social and economic decline (APPG for Left-Behind Neighbourhoods 2023).

Left-behind areas have also been described as areas that have felt politically neglected and disenfranchised. It has been argued that while going through massive economic and social changes, residents of these places felt that their voices and plight remained unheard by the political class (Goodwin 2016). It is Goodwin’s view that the residents of these ‘left behind’ places therefore blame the mainstream political class for many of their challenges, turning to populist parties as a form of protest (Ibid.).

Another definition of left-behind areas focuses on their ‘moral’ dimension. According to Tomaney et al (2024) left-behind areas are “moral communities” that embody distinctive values which produce a strong emotional attachment. These distinctive values and attachment to place are endogenously developed over long-term historical periods. Left-behind areas have suffered an abrupt devaluation of their moral and emotional ecosystem – what these authors call “radical shock” - through the closure and decline of buildings or historical social infrastructure that embodied these values and fostered local identity and attachment. Importantly, sources of the radical shock are external to the community in question. Tomaney et al argue that their lack of success in trying to resist these externally imposed changes, of having agency in that matter, caused a sense of humiliation and despair in this population (ibid.).

All these definitions reveal the ambiguity of the term left-behind areas. However, such ambiguity does not mean that the concept itself is meaningless or that these places do not exist. Geography is by nature diverse, - local areas each have their unique particularities - so it is not surprising that the term cannot be defined by an essential property. Instead, one could define left-behind areas by subscribing to a “family resemblance” definition. Such an approach suggests that there is an array of interrelated aspects that certain areas share to varying degrees depending on their history, population, geographical location and so on including low productivity, low educational attainment, low social capital, disenfranchisement, lack of moral agency.

Understanding pride in place

Since 2019, pride in place has been a regular feature of the political discourse of both the Conservatives and Labour. Boris Johnson’s promised in 2021 to restore “people’s sense of pride in their community” (Johnson 2021). Similarly, Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour Party, echoed his point in 2023 when he promised that his “Take Back Control Bill” would unlock the “pride and purpose of British communities” (Neame 2023).

From political rhetoric it has transitioned into an official policy term, featuring in government documents and associated with newly created metrics. The Levelling Up White Paper published in 2022 was an ambitious 300 page plus document that aimed to transform regional inequality in the UK. It was built around 12 missions, described as “medium-term targets” which “provide targeted, measurable and time-bound objective, or set of objectives, from which a programme of change can then be constructed or catalysed” (Secretary of State for Levelling Up, 2022). Mission 9 stated that “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” (Secretary of State 2022). The government has directly connected several regeneration funds which it has distributed to some degree to the pride in place mission i.e. the Levelling Up Fund (LUF),2 UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF)3, and Community Ownership Fund.4

However, as the government conceded in a technical annex5 to the Levelling Up White Paper published in 2022, it is unable at present to accurately assess what progress in this mission means and saw the mission as “explanatory” (Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, 2022). However, though it remained unclear what pride in place was, the government's initial assumptions about its meaning were related to the economic context of the area. Poorer places were the ones with low pride in place. However, as is explained in one of the few articles that address on pride in place in the UK directly, “Townscapes - Pride In Place” by Shaw, Garling, Kenny (2022), “there is a good deal of evidence which indicates that some of the places with high levels of local pride are among the more deprived areas in the country, while others are located in localities where economic conditions are improving” (Shaw, Garling, Kenny 2022, 7). The government did produce a long-awaited metric to try and measure progress related to the pride in place mission in early 2024. As can be seen below no economic factors have been mentioned.

Pride in Place is an emotion people feel towards the physical community that they identify with and feel a sense of attachment, belonging and deep-rooted contentedness towards. It is underpinned by their sense of safety and security, their participation and connections within the community, their engagement with local culture, heritage and sport and their satisfaction with local high streets, green and blue spaces and physical infrastructure.”

This metric identifies four key pillars where pride in place is concerned: safety & security (tackling anti-social behaviour), high streets & regeneration, community engagement, and engagement with culture, heritage and sport. There is evidence to support the inclusion of these four drivers. Looking firstly at safety and security, a nationally representative poll of two thousand British citizens conducted by Public First in 2021 showed that the most popular response to the sources of the decline of local pride was a rise in anti-social behaviour with 43% of respondents feeling it was the source of decline (Public First 2021). Redgrave (2022) argues that by eroding neighbourhood trust and acting as a visible emotional reminder that the area is in decline, anti-social behaviour diminishes pride in it.

In terms of the role of the high street, research conducted by UK in a Changing Europe in 2022 found that eighty-two percent of people believe that the high street is crucial to local pride and nighty-four percent of people see local parks and green spaces as most important (Hall et al. 2022).

Community engagement, understood here as volunteering and a sense of belonging, is often seen as essential to increasing the sense of attachment to the place and pride from collective achievements (being part of place-making) (Bonaiuto et al. 2020).

Finally, where culture, heritage and sport are concerned according to a survey done in 2021 of four thousand British citizens by Kantar, forty-two percent of people believe that historic buildings and monuments make them feel proud of their local area (Kantar, 2022).

However, as strong as this evidence is there may be a more fundamental pillar to consider where pride of place is concerned. Agency and control, individually or collectively, could have a crucial role to play here (Banaiuto et al. 2020). One feels pride in their professional accomplishments (getting a work promotion for instance) because they were the ones to achieve it. Likewise, at a local level, people are proud of a place when they associate it with particular accomplishments they identify with (e.g. having participated in the construction or renewal of a place or being the descendants of those that did) (Ibid.). That is why, according to Jack Shaw, communities want to “possess a sense of ownership and agency in those places” (Shaw 2022). The “Community engagement” pillar describe above partially covers that aspect but does not fully capture the importance of local control. In 2020, five European academics conducted an extensive literature review to establish the causes, effects, and relevance of “pride of place”. As Banaiuto et al. (2020) argue, local engagement without the actual power to make a difference can actually lead to collective humiliation, not pride. Local narratives and identities are then strengthened when these achievements become part of the makeup and historical folklore, through heritage buildings, improved high streets or the shared personality traits of local people. These unique historical and culture features are what people feel “proud of” (e.g. “our ancestors build this monument or achieved feat X”).

It could be argued then that collective agency has primacy over the other aspects of pride in place discussed above. The salience of local agency also means that pride is fostered from within a place and cannot be imposed from outside interventions.

Discussion

Both concepts - left-behind areas and pride in place – have become important aspects of Britain’s contemporary political arena. There are however two questions: is there an issue of pride in place in left-behind areas, and if so, what is the best approach to restoring it there?

Pride in place as has been described above includes several components such as engagement with heritage, better high streets and local agency. Left-behind areas have been described in a multiplicity of ways, though the one that appears most relevant to the descriptions of pride in place is the moral dimension put forward by Tomaney and others. As moral communities, left-behind areas have undergone changes that have uprooted their local sense of identity and autonomy.

These changes – notably deindustrialisation and austerity - were imposed against their volition and in that sense it could be argued (though not empirically justified due to a lack of concrete evidence at this stage) that their pride in place has declined. In addition, physical representations of past achievements (an industrial building for instance), crucial to their local narratives and identities, were progressively abandoned and left prey to anti-social behaviour. This symbolised and symbolises still today the deterioration of their area and thus of their sense of pride. It does not mean of course that they have lost pride, since for instance memories of past successes remain present in these communities (according to the Public First poll, people in the North East named industrial heritage as one the top 3 things that contributes to their pride in their local area (Public First 2021)) but that they are no longer able to foster pride through local agency.

A good example of the decline of pride in place in a left-behind place would be the extensive case study conducted on Sacriston, a northern mining town in England (Tomaney et al. 2024). Local residents built the place from the bottom up, progressively constructing key social infrastructure such as local churches, football pitches, the Co-op and a flourishing high street. These buildings were expressions of their agency and physical representations of their values, which emphasised “neighbourhood, mutual obligation, and common betterment” (Tomaney et al. 2024, 60). The decline of pride, however, commenced when the mining industry declined and the pit closed, and continued when other key buildings became derelict, substantially undermining the local area’s sense of collective ownership.

Since 2019 the government has sought to enhance pride in place in left-behind neighbourhoods through regeneration funds. The UKSPF has as its primary goal increasing pride in place and it is one of the key aims of the LUF. While this might cater to other aspects of left-behind areas such as productivity it does not contribute to their local sense of agency. To restore pride in place is not to impose regeneration plans on left-behind areas, or to set abstract targets, but to enable the people in these areas to restore it by themselves. The work therefore of the government should be to “enable communities to help themselves by empowering change-makers, building organisational capacity and furnishing them with the resources they need to meet the needs in their communities” (Tomaney et al., 98).

Left behind places are moral as well as physical or economic communities, hinging on a sense of agency with their local place. While centrally controlled regeneration funding can cater to other aspects of left-behind areas, such as low productivity levels or political neglect, they often fall short of addressing the core moral fabric that underpins these communities. Instead, the best approach to restoring pride in these areas involves the government devolving resources and powers directly to these communities, so they can take responsibility for their own area and foster a sense of ownership of their future.


References

Bonaiuto, Marino., Ariccio, Silvia., Albers, Thomas., Eren, Ramazan. and Cataldi, SIlvia. 2020. “Pride of Place: definitions, causes, effects and relevance for the rural context”. A framework produced as part of the Erasmus+ Project “Pride of Place”.

Case, Anne. Deaton, Angus. 2020. Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Cavallaro, Francesca. Stafford, Mai. Major, Alice. Finch, David. Bibby, Jo. Tallack, Charles. 2024. “Inequalities in life expectancy: how the UK compares”. The Health Foundation.

Dorrell, Ed. Crowhurst Mike. Waterhouse, Tom. 2022. “Heritage and Civic Pride: Public First Report for Historic England”. Public First.

Ford, Robert. Goodwin, Matthew. 2014. Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain. Milton Park: Routledge.

Goodwin, Matthew. Heath, Oliver. 2016. “The 2016 Referendum, Brexit and the Left Behind: An Aggregate-level Analysis of the Result”. The Political Quarterly, 87 (3): 323-332. doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-923X.12285

Hall, Suzanne. Jennings, Will. McKay, Lawrence. Stowers, Sophie. Surridge, Paula. Wager, Alan. 2022. “Levelling up: what England thinks”. UK in Changing Europe.

Johnson, Boris. 2021. The Prime Minister's Levelling Up speech: 15 July 2021. Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street.

Neame, Katie. 2023. “Starmer pledges new powers to local communities with ‘take back control’ bill”. Labourlist. September 5.

Martin, Ron. Gardiner, Ben. Pike, Andy. Sunley, Peter. Tyler, Peter. 2022. “Levelling Up Left Behind Places: The Scale and Nature of Economic and Policy Challenge”. Milton Park: Routledge.

OECD Regional Outlook. 2016. Productive Regions for Inclusive Societies. Paris: OECD.

Pike, Andy. Béal, Vincent. Cauchi-Duval, Nichilas. Franklin, Rachel. Kinossian, Nadir. Lang, Thilo. Leibert, Tim. MacKinnon, Danny. Rousseau, Max. Royer, Jeroen. Servillo, Loris. Tomaney, John. Velthuis, Sanne. (2023). “‘Left behind places’: a geographical etymology”, Regional Studies, DOI: 10.1080/00343404.2023.2167972.

Public First. 2021. Levelling Up Poll.

Redgrave, Harvey. 2022. “Rebuilding Communities: Why It’s Time to Put Anti-Social Behaviour Back on the Agenda”. Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

Sandbu, Martin. 2020. The Economics of Belonging: A Radical Plan to Win Back the Left Behind and Achieve Prosperity for All. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Sandel, Micheal. 2020. The Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good? London: Penguin Books.

Shaw, Jack. Garling, Owen. Kenny, Micheal. 2022. “Townscapes: Pride in Place”. Bennett Institute for Public Policy, Cambridge.

Secretary of State. 2022. Levelling Up the United Kingdom.

Tomaney, John. Blackman, Maeve. Natarajan, Lucy. Panayotopoulos-Tsiros, Dimitrios. Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, Florence. Taylor, Myfanwy. 2024. Social infrastructure and left behind places. Regional Studies.


  1. An all-party parliamentary group (APPG) is a technical group in the UK Parliament that is composed of MPs and Members of the House of Lords from all political parties but who share a common interest in a particular policy area, region and country.↩︎

  2. This is the current’s government flagship levelling up fund. It represents £4.8 billion and will be invested in three main areas: town centres and high streets, local transport, and cultural and heritage assets.↩︎

  3. This fund was created to replace EU structural Fund – it allocates £2.6 billion to areas across the country through funding formula rather than a competition.↩︎

  4. This £150 million fund is meant to support communities across the UK taking over and fostering local facilities, community assets, and important amenities.↩︎

  5. The technical annex provided more “detail on the underpinning analytical framework for explaining UK economic geographies in the Levelling Up White Paper”. It explains different key structuring pillars of the white paper, including the 12 missions, and their associated metrics.↩︎