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‘Left behind’ neighbourhoods: definition, experience, and opportunity

Understanding ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods

The concept of ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods refers to the unequal distribution of economic, social, and technological opportunities – where some communities have seen few of the promised benefits of a more globalised economy. First publicised by political scientists in 2014, the use of the term ‘left behind’ increased in England following the Brexit referendum. A common explanation for the ‘leave’ result, from academics and commentators, has been that people living in areas that were not directly experiencing the benefits of the status quo felt ‘left behind’ by the pace of change and progress of globalisation, and voted for Brexit as a protest against the establishment (Goodwin et al., 2016).

“We feed up to 150 people a day with our surplus food in a small estate in Reading, and we see people every day who, if they’re lucky, have a kettle. That’s all they have, and that’s only if they’ve got money on their electric card.”

Trisha Bennett, Community Development Co-ordinator, Whitley Big Local, oral evidence to inquiry session one

The term ‘left behind’ and its explanation have been seen as problematic by some, particularly as they suggest that residents of ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods are hankering after the past, or are uncomfortable with aspects of modern life (Morrison, 2022). It has also been regarded as negating the heritage and history of places, as well as the very real – if sometimes frustrated – pride in place many residents feel (Community Wealth Fund Alliance, 2021).The term ‘held back’ might be more appropriate in some contexts, given the impact of central government policy decisions on these places (Local Trust, 2019).

“Growing up in a deprived neighbourhood in the 1960s didn’t mean to say we identified as poor. We were absolutely rich in community spirit and ability to mobilise, and that is still very true today in 2023, despite how communities are often labelled.”

Barbara Slasor, Gaunless Gateway Big Local, oral evidence to inquiry session four

The APPG uses ‘left behind’ to identify and describe a very particular set of wards, not to imply that the areas so described lack people with skills and commitment or a rich heritage. We adopted ‘left behind’ as shorthand for those disadvantaged areas with high levels of community need that we advocate on behalf of. This bears out our foundational research which outlined that the key barrier to development in these neighbourhoods is a lack of services, facilities and connectivity that other areas often take for granted.

Foundational research by Local Trust and Oxford Consultants for Social Inclusion (OCSI) made what was previously a widely- used but vaguely conceptualised term more specific, essentially providing a quantitative definition for ‘left behind’ areas.

The definition we use in this report is that ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods are those local authority wards that experience the “dual disadvantage of high levels of deprivation and socio-economic challenges [and are] lacking in the community and civic assets, infrastructure and investment required to mitigate these challenges” (OCSI, 2019).

These are neighbourhoods that are ranked in the ten percent most deprived across both the Community Needs Index and the Index of Multiple Deprivation.

Both of these scales measure types of disadvantage.

The Community Needs Index measures civic assets, digital connectedness and how engaged and active communities are (OCSI, 2019). The Index of Multiple Deprivation measures the level of relative poverty in an area, principally driven by income levels, employment levels, education, and health (Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, 2019). Combining these indices helps identify areas which have both high levels of deprivation and a lack of the community assets, infrastructure and investment needed to build local resilience (OCSI, 2019). This means that the challenge is particularly stark in these places. Efforts to improve local conditions are impeded by a lack of access to civic assets and a low starting-point for community mobilisation and engagement. ‘Left behind’ neighbourhoods therefore require tailored policy approaches if they are to make progress.

1 Based on data collected by 360 Giving on all grants and the amounts given by UK funders. The figures are based on the location of the recipient organisation and include grants from 88 funders (only national grant funding organisations that submitted data to GrantNav were included and grants of over £1m were excluded).

'Left behind’ neighbourhoods do have lots of similar characteristics, but there are also key differences in terms of housing tenure, population characteristics, proximity to vibrant local economies and so on. So that whole point about deriving local solutions to local problems is critically important.

Professor Sarah Pearson, Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research, oral evidence to inquiry session three

Map of 'left behind' areas in England

Particularly following the deindustrialisation of the 1980s and the loss of thousands of jobs in former industrial heartlands, spatial inequality in income and employment levels in England increased (Tomlinson, 2021). This has since been compounded by events such as the 2008 financial crash, the ensuing austerity measures and cuts to public services, and the COVID-19 pandemic (Blundell et al., 2021).‘Left behind’ neighbourhoods are characterised by weaker social outcomes, a lack of community spaces and places, and low levels of funding that undermine the local economy. The risk is that, over time, these conditions can lead to further economic and social stagnation, creating a downward spiral from which it is difficult to escape.

If someone's in a poor financial position, this affects their mental health, physical health, employment, their ability to gain new skills. It cuts across almost every aspect.

Tom Lake, Fair4All Finance, oral evidence to inquiry session two

Where ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods are located

There are 225 ‘left behind’ wards in England, with a total population of 2,396,610 people, or 4.3 per cent of the general population (Local Trust, 2019).‘Left behind’ neighbourhoods are unevenly distributed across England, with the vast majority in the north of England and the midlands.

The North dominates, with 110 ‘left behind’ wards in the North West and North East, concentrated in former industrial and mining areas such as Merseyside and County Durham, as well as areas on the periphery, such as the large housing estates that often surround urban centres (OCSI, 2019).

London and the South West have the fewest with only five between them.

Most southern ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods are found in coastal communities, such as Margate, Dover and Bournemouth. Overall, most people living in ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods live in urban areas, with 47 per cent living in major conurbations and 43 per cent in minor conurbations, while only one in ten ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods are rural (Local Trust, 2019).

Because these local authority wards fall not only within the most deprived decile of areas on the Index of Multiple Deprivation but also face high levels of community need, they have an array of challenges – some of which are specific to them, while others are country-wide. These issues may be worse, or tougher to solve, in areas identified as ‘left behind’ because of local conditions (Hall et al., 2022).

Communities in ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods have generally experienced a stripping out of the physical social fabric in their local area. They lack community centres, they lack libraries, they lack shops, culture and recreational facilities. They may be living in poor quality homes and they lack choice in private rented sector accommodation. And there are also associated effects from crime and criminal damage.

Professor Sarah Pearson, Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research, oral evidence to inquiry session three

Life in ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods

‘Left behind’ neighbourhoods lack places to meet, such as pubs, restaurants, community centres and village halls. They can also be isolated from the wider community due to weaker transport and digital connectivity. All of these factors make it more difficult for people to establish the strong social infrastructure that has been shown to support wider improvements in local outcomes, and combine to create a cycle of disadvantage that often persists through generations (Frontier Economics, 2021).

Chart 2 below shows the density of social infrastructure assets within 1 mile of ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods compared to other deprived areas and England overall.

Children growing up in ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods are more likely to attend underperforming schools, which can limit their job prospects and perpetuate the cycle of poverty. Moreover, many ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods are located in areas with low levels of economic activity. This can make it difficult for adults to find work or access essential services – particularly given declining public transport services in these neighbourhoods. Both the academics and community representatives who gave evidence to the inquiry highlighted this as a problem.

We see the number of people in problem debt, and we see the number of people in the UK with low financial resilience. It was incredibly worrying before the cost of living crisis, and now it’s even more worrying.

Tom Lake, Fair4All Finance, oral evidence to inquiry session two

Cuts to public services and funding have made things worse for people living in ‘left behind’ places since 2010. Local authorities have faced significant budget cuts, with funding falling faster and further in more deprived places than in more prosperous ones (Williams, 2023). People living in ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods are more likely to rely on public services like social care, youth services, and community centres, and it is precisely here that many local authorities have cut back and closed such services opting to ‘centralise’ them in town and city centres. This assumes that residents living elsewhere will have the transport access needed to reach remaining services, which is not always the case (Gray et al., 2018). The result is that residents in ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods are at greater risk of being left without access to essential services and support (Local Trust, 2019).

“With limited transport links, many are unable to access training, healthcare, support services, and employment opportunities. The expectation that residents with poor health, finances or no transport will travel 12 miles each way or use the internet to access services is unrealistic. ”

Anna Bradley-Dorman, Ramsey Million Big Local, oral evidence to inquiry session two

Local media is another aspect of the local social fabric that has been weakened in many places as new business models and media consolidation have taken their toll. This has produced ‘local news deserts’ in many parts of the country, so communities have little access to reliable information about their local area (Macroscope; Charitable Journalism Project, 2023).

During the pandemic, the APPG’s publications highlighted the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods and called for urgent action to address the underlying issues (APPG for ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods, 2020a).‘Left behind’ neighbourhoods saw higher rates of infection and mortality than more affluent areas. This is partly because the largest employers in ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods often offer frontline jobs that put employees at greater risk of exposure to the virus, such as in healthcare, manufacturing and retail (OCSI, 2020b).‘Left behind’ places also have worse overall levels of population health to begin with (Munford, Mott et al., 2022).

Economic damage – whether from the pandemic or the current inflationary crisis – has hit ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods particularly hard. People living in these neighbourhoods have been more exposed to the rising cost of living because of high levels of indebtedness, financial insecurity and fuel poverty (APPG for ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods, 2022a).

Nine Dimensions of disadvantage faced by 'left behind' neighbourhoods