Some problems with place

As I set out last week, we’re undergoing a revival of interest in the potential of place-based initiatives to effect social and economic change. If you’ll allow me to quote myself:

“I think that this drive towards place-based solutions is a cry against working in specific silos—children’s, or older people, or mental health or whatever—instead focusing on how change can be achieved within a framework of where people live, where the connections happen.”

I make no bones of the fact that I’ve long been a champion of place but I’m not oblivious to the pitfalls and problems that such approaches can throw up.

Perhaps the most obvious problem with place is the lack of any real consensus over what it means in a public policy context. Some advocates of place believe that the link to local agencies (especially to local government) is paramount as they are rooted in (and elected by) their locality. Others want to bypass local representative democracy in favour of the smaller, usually informal, local communities that are found below ward level, organised more-or-less organically, street by street, estate by estate.

Some other issues to consider include:

  • Place-based strategies provide very little instruction as to how one should go about things, as opposed to where. We need to be mindful that just working locally does not guarantee a greater chance of acceptance and success. Despite the emergence of some guides setting out options and decisions to be made, the danger is that a policy ‘fashion’ starts to obscure this and leads people into doing the wrong thing;
  • Related to this, we need to think how we should assess and evaluate the effectiveness of such approaches. This is not easy, as the Lankelly overview of the topic points out. But we really do need to keep at it or we will find ourselves wasting resource;
  • At a higher level, some champions of place have a tendency to overdo the uniqueness of places. Yes, every ‘place’ is different, but actually each place is not entirely different from every other one—which is why some work in this area should be seen more as a piloting of an approach rather than just being aimed at solving the problems of a specific site;
  • We must have a clear view of the problems we are trying to solve with place and resist the temptation to muddle it up with other important initiatives such as the push towards more asset-based working, greater collaboration, co-design and co-production. While that might be tempting to do, especially as these things are often complementary, working with place as the focus may or may not require these other approaches:, but that is dependent on the issue to be addressed; and
  • Many of the major issues of our time revolve around things like income inequality and poverty and there is a limit to what can be done about this at local level. National policies also constrain what can be done locally through their rules and incentives. A focus on the local can lead to letting government off the hook.

The point about bringing out these problems, is not to knock the idea of place as an organising framework for dealing with key social issues, but to stop it taking its place in the well-worn pantheon of overhyped policies that in the end do not get us very far.

In fact, the more we’ve thought about place at NPC the more we’ve come to the conclusion that the involvement of the charity and wider social sectors is fundamental if it is to succeed as a popular, compelling and long-term policy solution. As our Head of Policy, Nathan Yeowell set out in his first thoughts on public service policy trends in February:

“Up and down the country charities, social enterprises and voluntary organisations have a unique insight into how our communities work. They help create the social capital that is so essential to good and thriving places. It is important that we take a full and active role in protecting and promoting public services in the future. We need to bring our expertise and many assets to the table, collaborate the sector and look to bridge the public and private divide in an attempt to broker a better way of doing things.”

Next week, I’m passing the keyboard over to Nathan who will share our first thoughts on what NPC’s approach to place looks like.

Join us on the 27th of April to discuss place, public services and civil society.

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