All Around Us: The Pontypool Deep Place Study

There is something wrong with economic policy-making – its called ‘Neoliberalism’. For years many people sought to deny its existence, but over the last 35 years it has become the dominant economic narrative across the UK and beyond. So ingrained has it become that it has, until relatively recently, been difficult to disaggregate it from broader understandings of Capitalism. Since 2008, however, the harm and inequality that it causes has become more readily accepted, including amongst people within the IMF. According to the OECD, the share of the top 1% of income earners in the UK has grown from 6.1% in 1981 to 12.9% in 2011 and the JRF calculates that poverty now costs UK public service delivery £78bn per year.

Pontypool Deep Place Study

Undertaken with support from the Sustainable Places Research Institute at Cardiff University, I recently completed a ‘Deep Place’ Study of the South Wales town of Pontypool. The Study sought to further develop the Deep Place approach to sustainable place-making advocated in the Tredegar Study of 2014, which I undertook with Professor Dave Adamson. The central research question for the Pontypool Study, like that of Tredegar, is concerned with the need to move beyond Neoliberal boundaries.

What type of economy and society do we need to create in our different communities to achieve economic, social, cultural and environmental sustainability by 2035?

The approach continues to be strongly influenced by, and indeed seeks to influence in return, theories of Social Exclusion, Transition Theory, the Total Place public service reform agenda, and Foundation Economics. In Wales in particular, the legislative context now includes the Well-Being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, which places a duty on all devolved public bodies in Wales to consider the needs of future as well as current generations. At its core is a sustainable development principle, and, in my view, an emphasis on place-based policy. The Act presents a significant opportunity to take forward the place-based sustainable place-making agenda in Wales and it is a major credit to Wales that this legislation exists.

Place-based approaches have experienced some criticism, but I believe that place-based policy making can lead to creative local solutions to sustainable futures. Critics of place tend to over emphasise the power of national governments to solve problems, which, in turn seek to exert too much influence upon local stakeholders. This is a major threat within the context of UK economy programmes, such as City Deal. Critics of place also, rightfully, point to the fact that previous attempts at place-based policy making have failed to overcome the challenges of our poorest communities. This should not, I suggest, lead to an abandonment of the place-based approach, but rather a greater emphasis on holistic sustainable place-making, which has so far been limited.

The overriding emphasis on securing foreign direct investment and agglomeration economics, which I believe derive from the dominance of Neoliberalism, take priority over distributed local economic development. A significant emphasis on infrastructure investment, which is at the core of the UK’s City Deal programme, has so far failed to consider social, cultural and environmental infrastructure. Nor, as is particularly salient in the Welsh legislative context, has it given much consideration to future generations.

Pontypool has a socio-economically mixed population, with areas of deep poverty in close proximity to areas of relative affluence. Pontypool town centre experiences significant weaknesses, but continues to have significant potential to provide public services, to be a focus for community cohesion and act as a potential location to grow local economic activity and employment. Key sectors of the Foundation Economy, including food, energy, care, the environment and e-commerce all offer opportunities for local employment, as well as being critical for the sustainable place-making agenda.

Another key difference advocated by the Deep Place approach, is the importance of communities themselves engaging in a process of meaningful co-production with local public, social and private sectors. It argues for a shift from seeing communities either as the passive recipients of grants and government-led programmes, or as being the victims of forces beyond their control. The research I undertook in Pontypool, and which I wrote about in the Report, identified major opportunities and I was privileged to engage with local people, businesses and public sector practitioners, who whilst recognising the challenges that exist, nevertheless have a commitment and passion to make things better for their community.

Although realistic about the scale of the challenge in Pontypool and other communities across the UK, the Deep Place approach is fundamentally a positive one. It actively seeks to identify local initiatives, resources and the passion and commitment of local people and businesses. These can, it argues, form the basis of a whole-place, place-based approach, which is so critical to making our all of our communities more equitable, resilient and sustainable for current and future generations.

This was originally an article for New Start Magazine published in November 2016:

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