There is currently a lot of talk about ‘left behind places’ from national and local policy makers. These places have high proportions of vulnerable people with complex needs and low levels of economic activity. This compounds their problems, as long-term unemployment, poverty, mental illness, and poor health often go hand in hand.
Budget cuts under the last 10 years of austerity have further hampered the ability of councils to address these complex challenges. Centre for Cities found earlier this year that the five urban areas that have seen the largest council budget cuts are all in the North of England. So how can we help these places begin to buck the negative trend that many find themselves in?
Money is being allocated by the government to help through the new Towns Fund, Future High Streets Fund, and the proposed Shared Prosperity Fund. But we still lack a clear understanding of how this money should be effectively spent.
There are also no quick wins to be had; we need to be realistic about how long it will take to turn around problems that have been generations in the making.
For the past year the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth, and the other What Works Centres, have been working with Wakefield MDC and North East Lincolnshire Council to address these challenges in Wakefield and Grimsby. It is often understandably difficult for policy makers to know which issues to tackle first – poor educational attainment? Lack of business investment? Crime? These issues are usually linked.
Each place also has its own set of circumstances to address. For example, Grimsby is somewhat isolated by its coastal location. Yet it has received Town Deal funding, has some strong further education institutions, and there is optimism in the council that positive change is coming. Wakefield is close to the large labour market in Leeds, and has high GCSE attainment, but is somewhat disadvantaged by the dispersed geography of its population and employers.
A ‘one size fits all’ approach simply won’t work. The evidence base cannot tell us what the most cost-effective approach will be when needs are complex, each place is different, and we have multiple ways of addressing a given challenge.
It is too often tempting for policy makers to use disadvantaged places as incubators for policy innovation and trying new things. Although experimentation is important, too much experimentation is arguably the wrong approach for these places. Instead of lots of ‘piloting’ and experimenting with new initiatives in disadvantaged places, we need to start with an approach that is based primarily on evidence of what works elsewhere.
Our work with the What Works Network, Grimsby and Wakefield has convinced us that to help guide their decision making in key areas, policy makers should keep several key things mind.
First, local policy makers need to have a clear conception of what ‘success’ will look like for challenges where different policies interact. They may want to start by picking a single issue that cuts across two or three departments such as attracting businesses onto the high street or improving skills. The key idea is to keep in mind that many issues are connected – such as a lack of opportunities for young people and an increase in crime.
Second, more work should be done to signpost data and resources to local policymakers. While some of this is held by government, many third sector organisations delivering front line services now hold huge amounts of data. More should be done to connect this data and make it available to policymakers. This data should then be used to inform the development of policy interventions.
Third, there needs to be greater understanding of how to target resources. Undoubtedly, the most benefit for a vulnerable individual or family is gained from tailored, intensive and personalised support. But the more people a council tries to offer this type of service to, the fewer people it will be able to support overall. So how should policy makers balance this?
There is of course no easy answer but guides do exist. The Greater Manchester Combined Authority has developed a cost-benefit analysis model that balances the fiscal, economic and social values of project outcomes.
These are all basics of good policy development, but when council officers and third sector organisations are overwhelmed they can fall by the wayside. The What Works Network has produced a short guide to using these proven methods to help places make improvements to their work.
This understanding is vital if policymakers, at both a national and a local level, are going to deliver positive change for the left behind and disadvantaged areas grappling with major social and economic challenges.