Addressing the Legacies of Deindustrialisation — Investment in societies, not just economies

Having succumbed to London’s gravitational ‘opportunity pull’ after living in the North of England for nine years, UCL student Alisha Chhabra (UCL European & International Social & Political Studies) reflects on the legacies of deindustrialisation.

In this piece, sparked by a talk by Fiona Hill, she looks back on her experiences of ‘left-behind’ places, and how they have shaped her interaction with the UK Government’s ‘levelling-up’ agenda.

Image credit: Unsplash/ mtimber71

Having moved from the north of India to the north of England, West Yorkshire is where I spent my teenage years; it’s the place I finally called home. A once thriving region, it was the beating heart of the Industrial Revolution. The area was one of the first to experience the fruits of industrialisation, with tens of thousands employed in the coal mining and shipbuilding industries in the early 1900s. With more Rolls-Royces purchased within Bradford than anywhere else in the UK at this time, the area was thriving economically, and communities accumulated significant wealth.

An area once synonymous with the development of the wool and textiles during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, it became the economic powerhouse of the North. At the same time, Leeds became a home to engineering and tailoring, serving Bradford in its path to becoming the ‘International Wool Capital of the World’.

The effects of industrialisation were deeply intertwined with life, in a way which transcended economies. At the root of industry were intricate community networks, built on mutual support and solidarity. These allowed workers to build their own community assets. The Durham Miners Association provided opportunities for families, with planned leisure activities and grants for social mobility.

However, when the industrial systems ran out of steam in the 1970s, with them collapsed much of the social infrastructure. Witnessing this erosion of communities, along with economies, galvanised Fiona Hill, ex-advisor to the President of the United States to tell her story of growing up in a former mining community in County Durham.

Hill, in her latest book, There is Nothing for You Here, looks back on her life growing up in the shadow of deindustrialisation. As she poignantly notes in her latest conversation with Professor John Tomaney, “you become awfully aware of something when it is ending.”

Decades later, I share many of Hill’s reflections on growing up in deindustrialised areas in the North of England and with her sense of loss. And how could I not? Geographical mobility and financial constraints have been as prominent in my life as they have been in Hill’s. Like Hill, I recognised that education was my ticket to opportunity, but this wasn’t without costs — taking me away from my home to other places.

Having moved to Bradford in the final year of my GCSEs, it became apparent that if I wanted to pursue my A Levels, this would require a daily commute of four hours on public transport to Leeds.

When education took me to London for university in 2020, I looked back to the four-hour long screening of the country fields I sat through every day and recognised that waiting hours for a bus wasn’t the norm. Of course, transportation and education, systems for social mobility, are key to thriving societies. Access to them needs to be supported in a way that doesn’t merely shift inequalities between areas.

“There are political costs when places are effectively written off” — Fiona Hill

The loss of identity and community assets has translated into deep disconnection between local and national policy. The fundamental economic reshaping of the North in the 1970s, stripping it of its most valuable infrastructure and identity, is something that many communities have not fully been able to recover from — as I experienced first-hand. To restore a place’s pride, voice and strengths, and communities’ individuality and opportunities, requires investing in its societies, not just economies, putting people first.

As Hill outlines, attending to the physical, cultural, and social divides across the country, in addition to the economic, is essential to ‘levelling up’. Focusing efforts at the local level and understanding and incorporating ‘left-behind’ areas unique voices into policy must be prioritised. This requires re-building community assets that were lost amidst deindustrialisation and creating opportunities for communities to feed into decision-making.

To do so, and to meet the ambitions of ‘levelling up’, the UK Government could turn — as Hill and I once did — to education. In particular, institutions can stimulate greater connections between places. Improving interregional collaborations offers platforms for the North’s voices to be heard, for their priorities to be understood, and their expertise strengthened beyond immediate geographies. As Hill remarks, building ‘infrastructure of opportunity’ is key. This should include greater transport links between towns and cities, genuine efforts to build the skill base in regions most affected by deindustrialisation, and in turn, improving access to ‘good’ work. It must be achieved in a way that doesn’t reinforce gravitational opportunity pull away from areas and contribute to ‘brain drain’.

Levelling up agendas must acknowledge that the economy is merely one element of the legacies of deindustrialisation. A more profound levelling up agenda should vision an infrastructure of opportunity and consider the deeper, societal ties and networks which impact communities. This is integral to ensuring areas in the North are no longer ‘left-behind’.

Levelling up or Left-behind?

“‘Levelling up’ or ‘Left-behind’? Restoring opportunity in UK society — In conversation with Fiona Hill” was an event organised by UCL Grand Challenges and UCL Public Policy.

Listen to the full recording, in which Fiona Hill and John Tomaney use the example of County Durham and draw upon personal experiences and research, to discuss policy solutions and how we can return hope to ‘left-behind’ places.

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