Andrew Carter 17 October 2019

Supporting evidence-based policymaking

With a general election on the horizon the domestic political debate is dominated by talk of ‘left behind’ places. Both the Government and opposition are gearing up to shower policies and investment at places that have not shared in the relative prosperity other parts of the country have seen in recent years.

The Towns’ Fund, the High Streets’ Fund and the Shared Prosperity Fund are examples of this approach, and I would expect more to come during and after the next general election. Providing more political attention and financial resources to disadvantaged places is a good thing, but for it to have the impacts that everyone desires it needs to be complimented with guidance and support on the best way to spend this money.

The austerity that local authorities have experienced in the past decade has deepened this challenge. Over this period urban councils, big and small, have faced ever greater demands for their front line services but have been on the receiving end of disproportionately larger cuts to their budgets than councils elsewhere. As a result, they have been faced with difficult choices about which services they must deliver and which services they cut. Less money inevitably means prioritisation of the most vital services.

As readers will know, service prioritisation is a difficult process, particularly when so many of the social and economic problems that an area faces are intrinsically linked. Crime rates can rise because of a scarcity of extra-curricular activities for young people, whose parents may lack employment opportunities because of the lack of well-paid jobs in a local area.

In this situation, which of these issues should be tackled first? For the past year the Cabinet Office-backed What Works Network has sought to answer this question. Working with Wakefield and Grimsby Councils, the Network – led by the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth – examined the primary causes and responses to the challenges that disadvantaged places face and has developed a major new paper providing evidence-based advice to help councils’ in their decisions.

An obvious first step that local places should do when deciding which schemes and programmes to run is have a clear idea about what ‘success’ will look like, particularly where different outcomes overlap and compete with each other. In this case, it may be a good idea to pick an area that needs improvement – such as high street regeneration – and then develop cross departmental policies involving the licencing, economic development and planning departments.

Another issue to be considered is the trade-off between intensive tailored support to a relatively few people versus a light-touch approach to a greater number of people. Whatever the economic or social issue, tailored, intensive interventions often work better. However, what is gained from more tailored programmes needs to be off-set against the greater number of people a light touch service can support. The report sets outs several resources that are useful for places exploring this issue – ranging from back-of-the-envelope estimates to more sophisticated models.

While there are no easy answers one thing is clear: the excessive use of short-term piloting, often funded through a competitive process, is not a helpful approach for disadvantaged or places. Take Blackpool as an example. It is awash with initiatives and pilots each with a different government sponsor, a different timescale and different funding criteria. This is not the most effective way of helping Blackpool, or other places like it, to tackle its economic and social challenges.

While pilots can of course be useful in discovering new ways of designing and delivering services, the stakes are too high in ‘left behind’ places. Instead, the focus in these areas should be on learning from and implementing existing interventions that have been proven to achieve impact.

The new cash and attention that is likely to be given to left behind places in the upcoming election campaign is welcome, but without a real understanding of the best way to spend this money it risks becoming yet another missed opportunity to turn around the fortunes of disadvantaged places the length and breadth of the country.

Andrew Carter is chief executive of Centre for Cities and deputy director of the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth, which has launched guidance for councils on evidence-based policy making in disadvantaged places.

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