What are ‘left-behind’ areas?

What defines a ‘left-behind’ area, and how did they end up like that in the first place?

Inequality is a concept that plagues every country, whether it be a developed or a third-world nation, and it is no different for the United Kingdom. London exemplifies this, containing 13.4% of the UK population, yet generating 22% of its GDP. It is by far the UK’s most significant city in size and economic wealth, making it a haven for investment, both private and national, yet cities like Sheffield are still reeling from the fall of their steel industry, with the streets and buildings falling into disrepair. Another such case is Cambridge, which alongside London, is one of the only cities in the UK that produces more money than it receives. Simply put, it is profitable due to its booming medical and scientific research industry worth millions. The government is incentivised to invest in these ‘profitable’ cities, so most of their budget is showered on these vastly wealthy areas. To put this into perspective, if the national budget was a cake when one group gets a bigger piece, the rest of the pieces are smaller overall, making the rest worse off – i.e. it is a zero sum game, where one party’s benefit comes from another’s loss. When this repeatedly occurs for many years, you begin to understand why we see such disparity between cities only a few hundred miles apart.

London, the UK’s largest and wealthiest city

Politically, the term ‘left-behind’ refers to areas that lack people with skills and commitment, a rich heritage or feature low levels of education, which GCSE pass rates can indicate, and high unemployment rates, as these highlight low social mobility and a lack of development or progression. However, from an economic perspective, a ‘left-behind’ area can be identified by isolating areas that have tended not to receive their fair share of available investment. Thus, they lack the services and facilities that allow for community connection and opportunities for residents to develop and prosper. It is in this sense that they are ‘left-behind’. Even with government intervention, it is unlikely that any private investors would move such facilities into the area. Almost all of them require some form of disposable income, ranging from gyms to theatres, and many of the residents simply do not have this. Without reforming the labour market, it will not be possible to attract any foreign investment to these regions as venture capitalists are driven by profit, not politics. If not enough people can pay for the services, then they do not want to provide them.

Although these ‘left-behind’ neighbourhoods seem to be scattered across Britain, a general trend can be seen where many of these areas are found in the North of England, which matches the concept of the North-South divide. This is similar to the Brandt line theorised by William Brandt in 1980, where a line was drawn across a map of the Earth, separating the rich North from the poor South, except, in this case, the roles have been reversed, and it is the North of England which we see struggling compared to the affluent South. As seen below, regions in the South include the South East & West, as well as London and the East of England, while the rest are found above the divide in the North.

The North-South divide

This exemplified by a study compiled by the Local Trust in partnership with the OCSI[1], which categorised neighbourhoods based on economic, cultural and social deprivation and identified over 225 left-behind communities across England. Of these areas, only 39 were found in regions below the North-South divide, which equates to only 17% of the total across England. This clarifies the inequality between the wealthier cities in the South and the forgotten towns of the North, especially since the UK’s largest and most prosperous city London only had 2, which was the fewest out of all the regions.

What the government is attempting to do is ‘levelling up’ the North, which is a term coined by Lord Heseltine to describe raising the quality of life and standard of living in the UK’s poorer regions, and these plans target these ‘left-behind’ areas. However, this concept is impossible to achieve without levelling down the South unless a radical systemic change occurs. This is because the government is approaching the solution from the wrong angle – they focus on preserving the old norm of the manufacturing industry that once thrived in the North, such as steel manufacture. The outcome of this is that the low-paying jobs from such sectors do not provide enough income tax to local councils to allow them to grow by themselves, and the residents do not have enough disposable income to buy what they want and stimulate economic growth through the free market. This causes a cycle of despair, where the city has to receive more funding to barely survive and fall back down and require investment again. The continuation of this process drains the budget for that region and draws funding from the wealthier areas that do not need it as much. However, this prevents places like London from maximising their potential growth, and thus in a sense levelling down the South.

This needs to be addressed by transforming the education sector, as well as the labour market by tying the two together to revolutionise the future of the UK in a solution that can level up the entire UK rather than the norm of levelling down one area to level up another – instead of a zero sum game with smaller and bigger pieces, the cake needs to become larger as a whole.

[1] https://localtrust.org.uk/policy/left-behind-neighbourhoods/


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