Can Boris Johnson Really Give People In Deprived Areas What They Want?

David Cameron promised an all-out assault on poverty. Theresa May spoke of the “burning injustices” blighting society. But there was no improvement, Anand Menon and Matt Bevington write.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently pledged over £3.5 billion for deprived towns. In a major speech in Manchester, he laid out four ‘ingredients’ for the success of the UK: liveability, connectivity, culture, and power and responsibility. He explained that this meant great public services, affordable homes, safe streets, fast broadband, and more responsibility and accountability at local level.

Much of this represented little more than a rehash of existing commitments that have stalled: the Shared Prosperity Fund, new rail infrastructure and so on. Yet let us not be “doomsters or gloomsters”. The fact that this was Mr Johnson’s first major announcement is significant in and of itself. After all, it took George Osborne three years as chancellor to announce the Northern Powerhouse. Boris Johnson made his bid in just three days.

Most encouragingly of all, much of what the prime minister said accords with the priorities spelled out by low-income voters in research, released by the UK in a Changing Europe and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. We carried out 18 deliberative workshops in nine cities and towns with some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the country, and gathered detailed testimonies from 190 people.

This revealed a pervasive pessimism, an internalisation of the austerity narrative and a wide sense of geographical injustice. Participants were proud of being from their local area though not necessarily proud of its current state. They bemoaned run-down high streets, derelict buildings and empty shops which had removed the central hub of many communities and encouraged anti-social behaviour. These were seen not just as the result of modern trends such as online shopping and out of town retail parks but as a cause in themselves of driving businesses, jobs and wealth from the local area.

Variations of, as a man in Newport put it: “They just haven’t got the money,” were common everywhere. As much as we tried to encourage a positive discussion about people’s ideas for their local areas—of which there were many—it was hard to get away from participants’ feeling that the lack of funding was inevitable.

Boris Johnson has shown he is at least willing to appear sensitive to people in areas such as these. Good. And good for him too, because voters on low incomes turned out in higher numbers for the election of 2017 than they had previously. And they are more likely to switch their votes between parties than previously thought.

But voters need to see politicians deliver. Brimming with ideas they may be, but brimming with confidence in their political leaders they are not.

Even those not trapped in an austerity mindset had little faith politicians. And who can blame them? David Cameron promised an all-out assault on poverty. Yet poverty rose. Theresa May made an electrifying speech on the “burning injustices” blighting society. But there was no improvement – if anything quite the contrary. Each understood the challenge enough to make a speech. But neither translated their words into action.

Across our locations, and bridging the Leave-Remain divide, participants expressed a sense that they are ignored by a southern-centric government and voiced a frustration and lack of faith in politicians, both local and national. As one participant in Worksop put it: “This country is too London-centred. Everything happens and all the needs and all the money is all on London and that’s what always attracts all the kids to London.” They bemoaned a lack of opportunities for themselves and their children.

Brexit highlighted—and not before time—the dissatisfaction percolating the kinds of deprived cities and towns in which we carried out our research. Given the number of references to the “left behind” since June 2016, we felt it was important to listen to what these people actually think. We finished the research struck by the need not just to change policy but to change how policy is made. Yes, these areas need more money. But just as importantly, it needs to be used according to the priorities of those who for too long have been at the back of the queue.

Anand Menon is director and Matt Bevington is public policy researcher at The UK in a Changing Europe.

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