The realisation that large parts of England felt, and indeed were, left behind, dawned very slowly for political leaders.
Since Gordon Brown turned off the flow of central government cash into deprived communities in 2008, successive administrations have not only failed to turn it back on but, through the austerity that hit hardest in such areas, actually made the situation worse.
The public sector delivery structure supporting deprived neighbourhoods has also been decimated. Homes England was once a powerful regeneration agency, now it is focused on housing supply in high-demand areas. The regional development agencies did some regeneration, but the problem barely seems to register with local enterprise partnerships.
And the dismantling of the planning system over decades has left it apparently powerless to address the regeneration challenges.
Ironically when, in the wake of the 2016 referendum, the need for change did start to be recognised, the focus fell not the real problem of deprivation, but on the symptoms of an entirely different trend – the move to online (and out-of-town) shopping, which for decades had been eroding high streets outside the bigger cities and more prosperous towns.
The geography of deprivation has changed little over those decades and was closely aligned to voting choices relating to Brexit. The most deprived areas on the deprivation map in the 2019 English indices of deprivation report are spread liberally across the former industrial towns and some cities in the north of England and some of the South West.
There has, however, been a significant reduction in deprivation in inner London, where the reversal in fortunes over the past 35 years has been huge – although statistical averages caused by wealthy incomers disguise real deprivation for large numbers of people.
And the employment shift to zero-hours contracts, self-employment and small businesses has helped disguise the concentrations of unemployment that were once a clear indicator of geographic deprivation.
Shockingly, the report shows that, on average, the most deprived ten per cent of neighbourhoods in England have an employment deprivation rate (percentage of working-age people involuntarily excluded from the labour market) of 25 per cent. Because there are nearly 33,000 neighbourhoods in total, the statistics don’t often hit the press – unless it's covearge of Jaywick, in Essex, which was named the most deprived place in England for the third survey in a row.
Some of these places might be about to experience another economic shock because of Brexit, and it is not obvious that the government has a solid plan to counter this. HS2 certainly won’t do it, and while the £3.6bn Towns Fund might help if used wisely by the 100 lucky recipients, it isn’t targeted at deprived neighbourhoods. Meanwhile, the long-awaited UK Shared Prosperity Fund, which was touted to replace EU structural funding and could be designed to address deprivation, hasn’t been heard of for some time.
The Big Local model is a powerful tool that Government could build on though. Local Trust was established in 2012 to deliver Big Local, a National Lottery Community Fund programme, which committed £1m each to 150 neighbourhoods across England. But as as Local Trusts’s recently released research identified, real success will require local authorities who have learned the art of co-production with communities.
Over the years many of the UK’s most successful regeneration programmes were led by planners. That could happen again.
Chris Brown is executive chairman of Igloo Regeneration