A people based policy for places without people?
I sometimes wonder whether the academics and researchers on whom we put so much trust have sufficient practical experience to offer solutions to the problems they analyse. On so many occasions, the solutions they promote seem disconnected from the issue that they are concerned with.
The other day I went to a conference at The Work Foundation entitled “Economic development: Innovating for local growth?” It was the usual sort of thing; four speakers reviewing where we are and what they thought could be done about it. The final speaker, Professor Henry Overman from the LSE pointed out that “area disparities are highly persistent” and continued with some bold assertions about the effectiveness of government intervention in deprived areas over the last 13+ years. We have to acknowledge, he went on to say, “…that 13 years of intervention effectively did nothing to address spatial differences”. He felt that the main reason that these interventions had been so ineffective was that they had focused on the area effects rather than the people. “All interventions should be on people not place,” he asserted.
I found myself nodding vigorously in agreement. All of my limited research has demonstrated that very few areas of high unemployment have seen significant improvements in employment rates. This is despite millions being spent on them through a raft of government schemes going back in some cases to the mid 1930s!
Here I thought was the platform that Professor Overman would use to call for a reform of public policy. To start investing, not in place, but in people. Optimistically I asked, what he thought we should do to help the millions of adults in this country that have no qualifications. By my calculations, there are between 8 and 10 million people in that situation i.e. one third of our workforce.
But instead of addressing this most serious of issues he preferred to push the problem out to future generations, as do so many other commentators in this field. He said we should, “invest in early year’s education.” How, I asked, does that help the people who have now left school with no qualifications and who need a job? “It doesn’t” he replied “and there’s nothing that can be done for them.” He went on to say that government investment should focus on the places where the market demands high skilled jobs and that many second tier towns would need to “dwindle in size”
Quite apart from the humanitarian issues that “letting places fail” raises, I was struck by how illogical this argument was. Firstly, if as Professor Overman says, “who you are is much more important than where you are” would you not develop a people centred programme? By this I mean a policy of investing in adult skills and employment designed around who the people are and not what you would like them to be. If several million people have very low skills I think you need to create jobs and skills training that is appropriate to those people. To talk about encouraging high skills and attracting advanced technical jobs flies in the face of reality for so much of our inner city population. Investment in adults is especially important when one considers that almost all the research shows environmental factors have by far the largest impact on a child’s likely educational attainment. It is estimated that schools themselves are responsible for less than 10% of a child’s achievement. Surely, if a child’s home life is the major determinant of its likely academic success then a major investment in adult skills and work is the best way of improving the educational achievements of today’s children?
Secondly, a policy of investing only in those places that have a chance of high skilled success sounds to me very much like a place policy not a people policy. It also seems to be a policy that will backfire if taken to its logical conclusion. If some towns should dwindle then where will those people go? They will be no more able to get high skilled jobs in the boom towns and they will continue to be a burden on the state – only now they will be rootless and dejected. One can only speculate on the social consequences of such a policy.
The uncomfortable truth for academics and for government is that we have to help the millions of unskilled, workless adults living in our country now. That means dealing with real people in real places. It is absurd to offer a people based policy for places without people.