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Levelling Up Needs Local Solutions

Houses of Parliament and the River Thames at dusk
High profile levelling up projects, led by central government, often fail to return results or gain local support. Does the solution lie in locally led, projects?
  • When striving to improve the prospects of disadvantaged communities there can be a temptation to parachute in solutions from afar
  • The best results come, however, when solutions are designed and implemented by locals
  • These solutions are not only more effective, but tend to cost less, making results more achievable

By Adi Gaskell and Zografia Bika

In The White Man’s Burden, former World Bank economist William Easterly bemoans western aid efforts that he believes conflate spending money with having an impact. He argues that much of modern aid is the preserve of what he refers to as “planners”, who believe they have the answers to local problems and then jet in and impose those solutions on communities.

A better approach is one epitomised by “searchers” who decry top-down solutions and instead look for market-driven responses. This approach doesn’t assume that a solution is had already and instead accepts that most solutions will be both complex and require nuance to solve. It’s the kind of bottom-up approach that was also popularised by Jerry and Monique Sternin in their groundbreaking work on “positive deviance“, which argues that the best solutions tend to already exist in small pockets within communities, and these solutions just need to be identified and then helped to scale up.

Central to this success is that they come from the community itself, so enjoy the fact that the solution has inevitably factored in the unique circumstances of that particular community while also having been generated by an insider rather than an outsider, so, therefore, benefits from enhanced credibility.

Regional inequality

This is not just a problem that affects international aid. The United Nations have identified growing inequality in many countries around the world, with these geospatial inequalities encapsulated in Nicholas Kristof’s portrayal of disadvantaged communities in the United States in his best-selling book Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope.

A recent paper from McKinsey highlights how a similarly localised approach is also effective in the kind of “levelling up” that was at the heart of the Conservative party’s 2019 election campaign. The research claims to offer an insight that is 230 times more detailed than country-level analyses and covers over 40,000 microregions that average 180,000 people.

It reveals that while living standards have typically improved on average, these gains in wealth and life expectancy were by no means universally obtained. For instance, the research found that there are around 574 million people in 6,300 microregions spread across 100 countries who experienced negative income growth between 2000 and 2019. This geospatial divergence is largely the consequence of very regional factors.

Indeed, the researchers explain that national GDP growth is only sufficient to explain around 20% of the variation in growth rate in regions of that country. The remainder is made up of factors that are inherently local in nature. 

Local solutions

In our research, we explicitly examined the challenges and prospects of deprived communities in England and France. The study examined the success of INCREASE VS, a five-year £10.8M Interreg France (Channel) England programme (2018-2023)  that aims to help participants into either employment or self-employment.

The programme was able to help over 1,000 people create new businesses, while also supporting over 1,100 people back into work. This was particularly notable given that the programme specifically targeted those people who were furthest from the job market, such as the long-term unemployed who are often ‘invisible’ and face various complex barriers to work.

The programme has developed integrated micro-enterprise and employment support services that were delivered by housing associations, and this was often crucial to the success achieved because they are not only central figures in their respective communities but also have a detailed understanding of the local market and the challenges people face in accessing work.

Too often the “levelling up” debate has revolved around high-profile infrastructure projects, such as High Speed 2, but our research shows that effective solutions don’t need to be either expensive or complex. 

Social infrastructure, not physical infrastructure

For instance, research from the University of Cambridge suggests that up to a quarter of all “levelling up” investment should go on “social infrastructure”, as this allows not only for local connections to be formed but also provides residents with a local identity and sense of pride in their community.

The lessons from the aid community show that “grand projects” dreamed up centrally and then imposed on an often unwilling and unsupportive community seldom deliver a good return on investment. Instead, supporting local projects delivered via stakeholders from those communities can not only deliver better results but do so far more cost-effectively.

While there are sadly suggestions that the UK government has cooled on its levelling up ambitions, if they are to move beyond an electoral slogan, then tapping into local energy and solutions will be vital.

This article is based on impact evaluation research of the Interreg France (Channel) England Programme (2018-2023) called ‘Increase Valorisation Sociale’ (‘social value’ in French) that offers micro-enterprise and employment-support services to those furthest from the labour market, who are often ‘invisible’ and face various complex barriers to work. It is co-written by Adi Gaskell (Senior Research Associate) and Zografia Bika (Professor of Entrepreneurship) from the University of East Anglia (UEA), Norwich Business School, UK.

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