Policy-makers, researchers and academics have a strong tendency to see the World through a series of policy silos. Although there have been many laudable attempts to overcome this compartmentalised approach, policy-making fields and academic disciplines are so entrenched that it is difficult to see past them. Given the complexities of human organisation, it is perhaps not surprising that in order to make sense of them we tend to break them down. The CREW report published today, Toward a New Settlement: A Deep Place Approach to Equitable and Sustainable Places, has not been immune to these difficulties. The result of a 12 month research process, the report has compiled many of its findings through policy silos, simply because of the necessity to engage with existing policy structures. Where the report differs, however, is in its focus on bringing all those policy fields back together to deliver a holistic vision for a socially, economically, environmentally and culturally sustainable community. It does this by using place at the core of its methodology, and Tredegar in Blaenau Gwent as the place case study.
The report is ultimately a mechanism for overcoming poverty, and as the lived experience of poverty at its most extreme is all encompassing, efforts to eradicate it that are not holistic are unlikely to succeed. The ‘wicked issues’ require and necessitate complex joined-up policy-making responses.
Our Deep Place Study of Tredegar published today, calls for a more localised economy for the town, which we argue can both eradicate poverty and achieve sustainability. Our analysis of the local economy is based on work undertaken by Karel Williams at Manchester Business School on the ‘Foundational Economy’, within which 40 percent of the UK workforce is employed. Whereas we do not suggest a separation of the economy of Tredegar from the mainstream economy, as the Welsh economy is intricately linked to the UK, European and global economy, we do suggest a more semi-autonomous local economy though localised supply chains and patterns of employment. The critical sectors in this respect are: food; energy conservation and generation; the care sector; and, e-commerce and employment. Together with the foundational economy, our approach is also influenced by ‘Total Place’, the pilot approached to public service reform developed under the last UK Labour government in England.
Our study considers the major challenges facing Tredegar, including: health, education, housing and transport. Tredegar has significant disadvantages in terms of health inequalities, and we argue that the causes of the causes are economically and socially determined. The NHS is only part of the solution to these inequalities, and we fully support the involvement of local populations with their own health, which international evidence has how to create more significant public health benefits.
Education is another key factor, and in Tredegar there are major educational attainment gaps between the local population and other more affluent areas of the country. Tredegar is clearly not alone, across the UK children from the lowest income families are half as likely to get five good GCSEs and study subsequently at University. We fully support arguments put forward by David Egan that in order to close this gap there needs to be a holistic strategy which involves families and communities, as well as schools.
We also argue that the provision of housing services including construction, repair, renovation and low carbon retrofitting, provides considerable opportunity to promote local economic development. We recognise that attracting house builders above what is called the ‘snow line’ in the South Wales Valleys in towns like Tredegar is a difficult task, but suggest that the local authority should explore mechanisms for securing private sector interest in both rental and market sale provision by undertaking a ‘de-risking’ strategy on its development land assists.
The transport challenge is also significant. Public transport is limited in Tredegar, entirely dependent on comparatively infrequent and expensive bus services, which often put a significant strain on those on low incomes who depend on them most to travel to work. This month it was announced that the nearby bus depot in Brynmawr is being closed and bus are being threatened, which will only add to the difficulties. Although we support the principle of the proposed Metro, we do have concerns for the affordability issues for disadvantaged communities like Tredegar. A more localised economic model, of course, significantly reduces the requirement for transport.
Our report is also concerned with the structures of governance required to create sustainable communities, which we strongly argue is dependent on engaging local people actively in the management of their communities. This is dependent on a willing approach to power at the community level that is open and inclusive.
We are conscious that our report is a bold vision, requiring concerted action in order to achieve it, and that it falls at a time of significant financial hostility. The impact the UK Government’s welfare reforms alone, according to research by Welsh Government, have taken almost £1bn out of the Welsh economy, with the most disadvantaged communities being affected most severely. We have thus far failed, however, to overcome poverty. We argue that only a concerted and holistic approach to place, with its emphasis on the local foundational economy and inclusive involvement of local people, will be able to address the causes of the causes of disadvantage.