Opinion: Why policymakers should care about location

Credit:  The District

Credit: The District

What account should policymaking take of the notion of ’place’ - the landscapes, cities and towns we inhabit, with all the opportunities and challenges they bring? Ben Goodair and Michael Kenny from Cambridge’s newly established Bennett Institute for Public Policy  explore the question in light of the different responses to the EU Referendum in the eastern region.

Some of the social inequalities that exist in the eastern region are ingrained - and are one reason why this area lacks a sense of shared geographical identity. Divides of this sort will require both political will and policy ingenuity to solve

Ben Goodair and Michael Kenny

The EU Referendum of June 2016 shone a light upon some of the deep fault lines contained within British society, throwing up profound and uncomfortable questions about what underpinned the differences in people’s perspectives that were revealed in the vote. Evidence suggests that you were much more likely to have voted to Leave if you had not been to university, were over the age of 45 and lived in a town or the countryside rather than a city.

This seismic event, along with the other political earthquakes currently shaking democratic politics throughout the Western world, reveals societies that are profoundly divergent in terms of political values and cultural outlook. Life chances are often contingent on where you are born, where you grow up and what access you have to educational opportunity. ’Place’, in other words, has a profound influence on our sense of where we belong and the values we prefer.

For politicians and policymakers who came of age during years of sustained economic growth, and who assumed the financially driven economy would generate opportunities for all, these deeply structural patterns of inequality must come as a shock. Anger and frustration underpinned the revolts by the disenchanted against democracy’s political establishments, sentiments which powered new waves of popular protest and support for populist challenger parties.

These responses highlight the inadequacies of a policy paradigm rooted in assumptions about stable economic growth, the unalloyed merits of urban expansion, and the capacity and political will of states to redistribute public goods across poorer regions.

Government is not alone in bearing responsibility for these issues. Academic experts could also have done more to highlight the major inequalities that are opening up across our democratic lives. These inequalities have helped fuel the very different responses to Brexit that have been apparent in our own ’place’.

The city of Cambridge was very clearly in favour of Remain in the Referendum - with 73.8% voting in favour. But drive for 30 minutes in almost any direction from the centre and you will find yourself in villages or towns that voted overwhelmingly for Leave. They may be geographically close, but, in relation to Brexit, a chasm of outlook and experience divides Cambridge from the places around it.

A new Combined Authority now links Cambridge, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough - one of a number of innovations in administrative devolution introduced in England in recent years. This single jurisdiction has a limited set of powers conferred upon its elected Mayor. These new arrangements have had the effect of formally linking Cambridge and its world-class university to districts and towns from which it is, in many ways, a world away. This has created a kind of natural experiment on our doorstep, a smaller-scale replica of some of the geographical divides that are apparent across the country. Some of the social inequalities that exist in the eastern region are ingrained - and are one reason why this area lacks a sense of shared geographical identity. Divides of this sort will require both political will and policy ingenuity to solve.

If we compare Cambridge and Peterborough, for instance, the latter’s inhabitants have a significantly lower standard of living, on average, than their counterparts in Cambridge. On a range of public health measures, from obesity to physical activity levels and avoidable mortalities, there is an entrenched difference between these towns. 

More of Peterborough’s children receive free school meals, and a much lower proportion of its residents have access to further and higher education. Most Cambridge full-time residents can expect to earn £120 more per week than their Peterborough equivalent; and the latter’s inhabitants can expect, on average, to live two years fewer than their Cambridge counterparts.

There are significant disparities within each of these places, as well as between them. In 2018, for instance, the think tank Centre for Cities ranked Cambridge the most unequal city in the UK - for the second year in a row - which should give us pause for thought. Cambridge is home to an extraordinary concentration of academic expertise, innovation and knowledge-intensive industries. How can the economic and societal benefits of these assets be more evenly distributed?

The University has a key role to play in addressing these issues. At Cambridge’s newly established Bennett Institute for Public Policy, we are committed to a deeper understanding of them, and to helping policymakers think through different potential responses.

For instance, we are currently examining some of the main differences in economic opportunity and social provision that characterise life in different kinds of town within England, looking at whether the ’footprint’ of public services is receding more dramatically in, for instance, post-industrial towns than elsewhere. And we are exploring ways in which the newly created tier of Combined Authorities, including that in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, can improve in terms of their political accountability to their citizens.  

Cambridge is, in relative terms, one of the wealthiest parts of the country. The city is one of the strongest sources of economic growth in the UK, and a provider of employment for many residents from Cambridgeshire - though relatively few from Fenland or Peterborough. The most widely aired solution to the region’s imbalances is to do more to improve its connectivity to the areas that lie beyond its boundaries. To get to the root of the economic disparity in the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough region, we need to understand the underlying factors that make ’place’ so important both to the innovation industries that have flourished in Cambridge and to the other kinds of business - notably agriculture - in the landscape that surrounds it.  

The University houses a range of individuals and groups with considerable academic expertise on the social and policy issues facing the region, and the importance of place. Several of these have made important contributions to policy debates, for instance as advisors to, and members of, the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Independent Economic Review, the Greater Cambridge Partnership and the Combined Authority’s Business Board.

Understanding the importance of place to public policy does not just mean thinking locally, however. There are many different kinds of community - institutional, cultural, or voluntary - which matter to people, and also to policymakers, and some of these extend beyond national borders while others reside within them. In policy circles, the notion of place is a more recent discovery in the wake of events like Brexit. Our conclusion is that bringing intellectual depth and a richer evidence base to this emergent issue is one of the major contributions which the University can make to public policy in our region.

By Ben Goodair, a Research Assistant at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, and Professor Michael Kenny, the Institute’s inaugural Director.

Read more about Cambridge University research in the East of England in a special issue of Research Horizons magazine: ; on Issuu.

Download issue 38 (PDF)

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