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Three possible futures: at the turning-point for ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods

We are at a critical point for the future prospects of those living in ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods. Notwithstanding the challenges, political attention is now focused on creating policies that will help these communities.

The different approaches to addressing inequalities within and between the countries and regions of the United Kingdom look set to be a key political battleground in coming years (Diamond et al., 2023). As a recent report from the Institute for Government notes, “given the tight fiscal context that the next government, whoever it is, will face, devolution of responsibilities – more than higher spending on new policies – is likely to be a major tool to try to drive regional growth” (Pope et al., 2023, p. 8).

Yet growing economic instability and the increasing cost of living threatens to destabilise the cross-party consensus built around the need to tackle place-based inequalities – particularly if the initial funding programmes attached to the levelling up agenda are not seen as successful.

This presents a challenge, because the current design and structure of these programmes are not optimised to deliver success. They do not fully recognize the scale of the issues faced by ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods, or the community- led, context-dependent approaches that could make the most difference. As a result, whether or not we choose to redesign these programmes may shape the path of ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods for decades to come. Early evidence shows a strong regional component to the United Kingdom’s cost of living crisis, with London and the South East pulling even further ahead in terms of productivity (West Midlands Regional Economic Development Institute, 2023).

If the current levelling up programme continues as it is, only unevenly supporting ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods by chance rather than design, failing to account for changing economic circumstances, and only slowly redistributing power or adjusting funding practices – there is a genuine risk that we will see ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods become further ‘left behind’ over the next ten to twenty years. Even at the top end of reasonable expectations, with current approaches working well or being tweaked, the current model will be unlikely to transform ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods in the ways described by the White Paper. Instead, we may see these areas just about keeping pace with the rest of the country, primarily due to the efforts of informal and third sector local community action, so that the gap in outcomes between deprived and affluent places persists.

Even if the current levelling up agenda persists and has some success, ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods will still find themselves relatively disadvantaged: resources will continue to flow to other places, while some ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods will experience second-hand benefits that allow them to keep pace but not to truly transform local people’s life chances. But there is another scenario. Learning from the experiences and listening to the voices of people living in ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods, the government can adapt its levelling up programme and see these places begin to radically close the gap in outcomes with wealthier places. This will create a shift in the life chances of millions of people and contribute significantly to the wider prosperity and productivity of the nation.

We elaborate on the three possible futures for ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods below.

While it is impossible to predict which path the country will take, the third – and most favourable – future is the one requiring the most ambition, imagination and political will. If nothing changes, evidence to the inquiry confirms that the first two futures are far more likely.

Worst-case scenario: Falling further behind

The policy objectives and approaches currently set out by the government are pursued without change. Some combination of falling political capital, inadequate levels of investment, central micromanagement, lack of strategic focus, resources being reallocated due to unexpected short-term challenges in other policy areas, and challenging economic circumstances mean that the levelling up programme makes little headway. The current design of levelling up even proves to be counterproductive in a number of ways.

In this scenario ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods become even more disconnected from the rest of the country, with a widening gap in terms of social and economic outcomes.

As jobs and investment continue to flow to more prosperous areas, ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods experience declining living standards and opportunities. One of the most significant consequences of this trend is likely to be worsening social and economic outcomes. ‘Left behind’ neighbourhoods may experience even higher rates of poverty, unemployment, and ill health, as well as lower levels of educational attainment and life expectancy. This could lead to a vicious cycle of deprivation and social exclusion, where individuals and communities find it increasingly difficult to escape the negative effects of their circumstances.

The social fabric of ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods is also likely to become increasingly frayed, even despite the efforts of community groups in many places, as they are unable to access the support and resources that they need to effectively address local issues and challenges. As people struggle to make ends meet, they have less time and energy to invest in their communities, leading to a decline in social capital and a lack of engagement in local civic life. This could further exacerbate the sense of disconnection that many people living in ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods already feel, as well as creating a self- reinforcing cycle of decline.

A further cost of this path is the missed opportunities for development it will bring. As ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods fall further behind, they may miss out on opportunities for investment, innovation, and entrepreneurship that are vital for dynamic local economies. This would have knock- on effects for the wider country, leading to reduced productivity and slower overall economic growth.

The costs of dealing with the negative consequences of social and economic decline in these areas could be significant, both in terms of financial costs and the costs to people’s wellbeing and quality of life. Public services – many of which are already strained to the verge of breaking- point – would face rising demand and a deepening complexity of cases.

Levelling up is also about rebalancing at a more local level within regions, not only between big cities and small towns, but between suburbs, rural areas, and particularly ‘left behind’ places. It would not be a success if we just ensured that superstar cities in each region pulled further away from the 'left behind' neighbourhoods that often surround them.

Toby Lloyd, housing and regeneration policy expert, oral evidence to inquiry session three

Base-case scenario: Stalled progress

The policy objectives and approaches currently set out by the government are pursued without any fundamental change. Incrementally improving economic conditions, successful (if limited) experiments in devolution to metro mayors, and the growing impact of a plethora of new funding pots begin to make a difference to the economic geography of the UK. While the gaps between whole regions can be seen to be slowly closing, ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods are not effectively targeted by policy and funding decisions; they feel the benefits unevenly, and often in a second- hand way as growing economic prosperity in some urban cores begins to trickle outwards.

Here, pockets of success begin to appear across the UK, spurred on by limited devolution experiments with metro mayors and the mushrooming impact of a myriad of new funding resources – not perfectly targeted, but nevertheless transformative for some places. These changes start to recalibrate the country’s economic landscape, gradually bridging the gaps between entire regions. In this scenario, the prospects for ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods remain ambiguous. Living standards and opportunities appear stable in some places – but there is also no sign of dramatic improvement. For many ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods, the experience of levelling up is a distant echo of prosperity happening elsewhere, not a genuine uplift in their circumstances.

‘Left behind’ neighbourhoods remain neglected compared to more successful places, and so some of the implications of multiple deprivation and weaker local civic infrastructure will be felt more keenly over the years, breeding a growing sense of paralysis and disillusionment. Local public services remain hard-pressed by high levels of demand; poor transport links are not improved so local connectivity remains weak.

While nearby urban cores may be flourishing, local businesses, industries and employment opportunities in ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods see little change. While there may be some spill-over effects, the opportunities for meaningful economic activity in neighbourhoods remain constrained, limiting employment prospects and economic diversification. This, in turn, reduces the scope for local entrepreneurs and stifles innovation. Faced with limited local opportunities, many young people continue to choose to leave in search of better prospects elsewhere. This exodus of youth and talent exacerbates the challenges facing ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods, leading to an ageing population, a lack of fresh ideas and dynamism, and further challenges for local economies.

Instances of genuine community mobilisation are supported in some places. Where it exists, this helps to engender improvements in some ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods, delivering a version of levelling up that ensures that, on average, ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods do not fall too much further behind.

But without a targeted approach to develop the community capacity and invest in the social infrastructure that is needed in ‘left behind’ places across the country, these instances of mobilisation and strengthened social fabric will remain the exception rather than the rule.

They will illustrate the missed opportunity for all the other ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods where such improvements have not happened. Without better-targeted support, the gap between most ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods and more prosperous places persists.

Best-case scenario: Transformation

The policy objectives and approaches currently set out by the government are rethought and refreshed, with new underpinning principles which are specifically designed to ensure benefit to ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods across the country. Approaches to devolution are tailored to the needs of these areas, and new processes are developed to harness the experience and capacity of local people at the neighbourhood level in every stage of policy development, from conception, to design, and delivery. Central government adjusts its approach to making funding decisions to account for the very different starting positions of ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods, ensuring that these places see early investment in the necessary building blocks for change.

A new model of levelling up could provide a very different future for ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods: supporting communities to mobilise, unlocking resources, and addressing entrenched sources of disadvantage. This would have wider systemic benefits, reducing demand on public services, strengthening economic outcomes, and building resilience.

This is a scenario where ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods begin to flourish, becoming vibrant communities where residents can access quality services and economic opportunities. Enhanced devolution of power to local authorities, and to communities themselves, leads to a more efficient and targeted use of resources, ensuring that those with the most experience and expertise lead initiatives and make decisions about the issues and specific needs of each ‘left behind’ neighbourhood. Long-term investments in both physical and social infrastructure create a solid foundation for sustainable growth and regeneration.

As ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods undergo this transformation, the lives of their residents change significantly for the better. Access to quality education and training programmes gives young people a fair chance to develop their skills and prepare for rewarding careers. The availability of good jobs within these communities lessens people’s need to leave in search of opportunities, helping to stem the ‘brain drain’ and fostering a sense of pride and belonging among residents.

Adults in ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods also benefit from bespoke pathways to high- quality technical qualifications and adult education programmes, allowing them to up-skill, re-skill, and take new employment opportunities. This in turn may lead to higher disposable incomes, improved living standards, and a more stable local economy. Access to quality healthcare and social services helps address long-standing health disparities, leading to better physical and mental well-being for residents – and all the benefits to economic opportunity and productivity that come with it.

Community mobilisation is a driving force in this potential future. Backed by local government and civil society organisations, local residents are encouraged, incentivised, and supported to engage in decision- making processes and take ownership of their community’s development. This creates a sense of agency and empowerment, fostering a strong sense of civic pride and unity. Grassroots initiatives thrive, leveraging local assets and resources to address specific community needs and promote social cohesion.

We can start to show that it leads to fantastic progress very quickly. When we genuinely empower the community and give them the resource without all the strings attached to it, they can actually do what's right for their community.

Graeme Duncan, Right to Succeed, oral evidence to inquiry session one

Neighbourhood planning can be a good and provide positive ends in itself, but it also can provoke positive movement and start to encourage potential leaders from within communities to get involved more widely.

Gavin Parker, University of Reading, oral evidence to inquiry session four

As the lives of people in ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods improve, the UK will enjoy the wider benefits of this transformation both regionally and nationally. Reducing the disparities between ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods and other areas leads to a more balanced and resilient economy. The newfound prosperity in ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods stimulates demand for products and services, creating positive ripple effects for businesses and industries both within and beyond these communities.

As residents of ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods gain access to better education, healthcare, and employment opportunities, the demand for welfare and other support services may decrease. This frees up local government resources that could be redirected towards further investments in social programmes, infrastructure and other initiatives.

In this future scenario, ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods emerge as models of resilience and adaptability. Faced with the challenges of climate change and other global disruptions, these communities would be better equipped to respond effectively and adapt to new circumstances. At the same time, the success of this new approach to transforming places is testament to the power of targeted policy interventions, community engagement, and long-term investments in both physical and social infrastructure. The success of ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods showcases the power of collaboration between different levels of government, the private sector, and civil society in driving sustainable, inclusive growth. England’s approach to addressing place-based inequality may become a case study for discussion by social reformers in other countries.

All three of these futures are still possible. Next, we recommend the interventions central government, local government, charities and the communities sector should pursue to transform the fortunes of ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods, and so avoid wasting their potential to contribute to a stronger national economy.