September 12, 2019 - 8:44am

A new way of measuring “left behind” communities has come up with some intriguing results. Research featured in The Economist by the same people who compile the official Index of Multiple Deprivation for the Government suggests ranking communities by positive things they are missingĀ – like libraries and bus services – instead of by negative factors like crime. In doing so you end up identifying different problem areas:

“…Local Trust, a charity, asked OCSI to devise a community-needs index with a narrower focus. Whereas the multiple-deprivation index largely assesses the presence of negative factors like crime and unemployment, the new index highlights the absence of positives, such as civic amenities and transport links.”
- The Economist

A combination of the two indices was used to identify the most “left-behind” communities in Britain. Some of these were in “post-industrial parts of the country or unloved seaside towns”, but others were much closer to the action: “housing estates on the fringes of prosperous cities and large towns”. They concluded:

They are only a short drive or bus ride from thriving city centres and yet feel neglected. ‘Public transport outside of London is expensive,’ says [Stefan Noble of OSCI] ‘It is difficult for people to leave these areas and participate in the core.’

In other words, a community doesn’t have to be far away from the action to get left behind.

Partly, this is the result of terrible post-war planning; but partly it is contemporary under-investment. While austerity-minded governments make a point of “protecting” the most politically sensitive public services i.e. schools and hospitals, there have been deep cuts to softer targets like public transport, libraries and community groups.

Furthermore, even when political power is devolved from the capital to cities and towns, it doesn’t mean that it reaches struggling communities on their doorstep. Resources devoted to the regeneration of your nearest city centre don’t help you much if you’re effectively cut off from it. Indeed, to see investment going in just beyond the reach of your community is all the more frustrating.

This has powerful political consequences, the report warns:

There is a strong association between a ward’s position on the new index and its vote to leave. The correlation is more than three times stronger than that between the Leave vote and the conventional deprivation-index ranking. This could bolster the argument of those who reckon cultural and social factors ā€“ as much as economic ones ā€“ determine people’s satisfaction with the status quo.

Only a programme of radical decentralisation can meet this challenge. Conventional devolution of power to metropolitan areas is a good thing but it isn’t enough on its own; as I wrote last year, there’s a whole supporting layer of hyper-localism that also needs to happen. Neighbourhoods need to be individually empowered and resourced to direct their own renewal.

This is the key to reconnecting these left-behind communities ā€“ and restoring faith in democracy as a whole.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.