Blackpool, Redcar, Oldham, Merthyr Tydfil. Recent years have seen the term ‘left behind’ being used to describe countless places like these across the UK.
Many face acute socio-economic challenges. They largely voted Leave in the Brexit referendum.
‘Left behind’ has become a go-to shorthand for many commentators, politicians and policymakers to talk about these places.
But the words ‘left behind’ imply something neutral. Something that just happened naturally. It fails to recognise the complexity of geographical inequalities, their implications for citizens, and what response is demanded from those in positions of power. In fact, what’s happened to these towns is a direct and inevitable consequence of political decisions made by governments (of all parties) in recent decades.
The problem with the ‘left behind’ narrative
‘Left behind’ reminds you of the kid at school who always forgot their trainers for PE and lagged behind the more athletic members of the class on a run around the school field. It doesn’t describe the combined experience of rapid and poorly managed economic restructuring, the decline of traditional industries, the erosion of public services, and chronic underinvestment.
In this sense, it is perhaps no surprise it has proven so popular a term. It provides a superficially sympathetic deflection for those in positions of power who continue to struggle with developing strategies for the impossible task of maintaining the current socio-economic system and addressing the growing inequalities it creates.
It creates a narrative in which places have just not been able to keep up with the times. That it’s regrettable, but natural, that they should lose out in the survival-of-the-fittest forum of late-stage, free-market capitalism.
In this framing, ‘left behind’ places are anachronisms - places which continue to exist out of their rightful time. But the reality is the opposite.
Why ‘left behind’ towns are a sign of the times
Since the 1980s, these places have received a woefully low proportion of investment in vital infrastructure including education and skills. Having been excluded from much of the bounty of the economic boom years, they have been hit doubly hard by recession and austerity. The effects range from rising infant mortality to soaring foodbank use.
Local economies are characterised by either a low number of jobs in highly specialised sectors (such as advanced manufacturing or defence), or a high number of low-pay, poor quality jobs in call centres or distribution centres.
This kind of ‘bad work’ traps people in a cycle of insecurity. Disproportionately affecting women and part-time workers in the poorest parts of the poorest places, the lack of opportunity to progress affects mental health and family life.
In facing these problems, so-called ‘left behind’ towns are not behind the times, but representative of our times. It’s in these places that the values of today’s society are being played out. It’s just that we’re ignoring it. Because we won’t like what we see.
The implied inevitability of being ‘left behind’ hides the inconvenient truth that deprivation is just as much of our time as the crane and glass tower-filled skyline of the City of London.
The poorest parts of the UK have a rich heritage and strong communities
The idea of ‘left behind’ not only mischaracterises what’s happened to these places, it ignores the value and potential they have – and the voices of their citizens.
These places have rich and diverse heritage. It’s often undervalued, but remains central to people’s identities and local pride.
Many ‘left behind’ places have a lot of community activity, even the most marginalised of them. Indeed, this is often a direct, defiant response to the exclusion and stigma they’ve experienced.
This community action, this coming together, represents a form of social capital. It is a powerful, often essential, source of support for people in marginalised communities. And social capital can provide the basis on which citizen-led, place-based change can be built.
The importance of tackling the issue of identity head-on
Of course there is a risk that ‘community identity’ works to ‘bond’ small groups of people who are already the same, not ‘bridge’ the divides between different groups. If this happens, people responding to difficult circumstances are drawn together, but only in a way that isolates them further from the rest of society.
Often this happens through scapegoating people who are already marginalised, which we see in the rhetoric around changing ethnic demographics in some traditionally white working-class places.
Community and identify are difficult issues. But they can be at the heart of what it means to live a good life in a particular place. This is why they are such flashpoints in the places that sit at the intersections of economic decline, demographic change, and austerity.
The Brexit vote and its aftermath have bought community and identity to the fore. There remains a reluctance and awkwardness to discussing these issues. But there is a growing recognition that ignoring these factors only serves to make things worse, and create divisions which the extreme-right can exploit. We need to tackle them head-on.
To do that, we need to be able to explore these issues in a more constructive way and end the extreme-right’s monopoly on a sense of belonging. This can be used to mobilise economic change and wider well-being.
Using local heritage to build a brighter future
At the RSA, we are developing a new programme of research and action which will focus on the relationships between place, inclusive growth, heritage, and identity.
It will explore how heritage can be used more effectively to support the social and economic changes needed in local areas. A key part of this will be to explore what the heritage of a place means to the people that live there.
This project is intended to create a space for a diverse range of people to come together and explore how heritage can help develop a local identity and inform a brighter future. One in which no community can be dismissed as ‘left behind’.
If you are interested in keeping up to date with this work as it develops, join the RSA Fellow-led Heritage Network, which will be involved throughout this upcoming programme.