Local economies: Place-based approaches to policy implementation

Claire McGrath discusses the progress of economic development policies at the regional and local level in the UK, and how place-based approaches can lead to more equal, bottom-up development that builds social capital, as well as economic growth.

Place based approaches have the potential to revolutionise the way in which policy is delivered by achieving higher impact outcomes often at a lower budget. The importance of place in informing the way in which policy can be most effectively implemented has relevance throughout the diverse policy landscape, but perhaps is most relevant, and has the highest potential impact, in creating and sustaining economic development and building the capacity of civil society.

Although innovative in a policy domain, place based approaches have a longer history in academia. Early thinking on economic development at a regional level, such as the contributions made by Hirschman (1958) and Rostow (1959) from the 1950s explored the theory of economic development in terms of models and stages, often coming up with divergent development pathways with little consideration of the importance of local context. As this early thinking became increasingly simplistic in regard to spatial variations and place as an active generator of change, new research and analysis from the 1980s and 1990s began to realise the importance of local context as well as the relationships between places in explaining uneven economic growth development and wealth creation. At a UK level, key authors, such as Doreen Massey, revolutionised the field of regional development by using Britain’s changing economic landscape to argue the importance of place going beyond purely economic factors, to take into account the network of social relations in which the economy is embedded within. From this perspective, places can be thought of as processes always in a state of being reconstructed based on the social relations that form networks both internally and extend beyond place boundaries. The highly uneven geography of economic activity within the UK has been partially attributed to the prominence of London, both at a UK and at a global level, as a consequence of the centralisation of economic and political power, arguably to the detriment of other UK cities and regions (Massey, 2007). Perhaps this critique of London explains the divergence in approach to regional development of policy and academia, as ‘place-neutral’ approaches continued to dominate policy. A place neutral approach tends to focus on different industrial sectors of the economy rather than a territorial approach, whereby;

‘Decision making was mainly top down, with mixed, integrated, and/or bottom-up approaches have virtually ignored and with a tendency to depend on state aid, financial support, incentives, and subsidies as key element of the strategy. Frequently, these policies relied on the imitation of successful development strategies applied in very different contexts’ (Barca et al, 2012: 137)

Led by the World Bank (see for example, World Bank, 2009) in a series of reports re-evaluating economic development strategies, new approaches and concepts have filtered down into policy. As the importance of place, and the relations between places, are realised by policy-makers, ‘one size fits all’ development stages and models are being increasingly replaced by place based approaches in light of this new understanding. In keeping with this move away from development models, the theory behind a place based approach is based upon a framework whereby to be ‘place based’, development strategies must take into account both context as well as local knowledge and ‘assets’ more broadly. As placed-based approaches have come to the fore, co-production and Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) are being increasingly utilised as tools for place based approaches as a means of identifying local assets and priorities to establish the nature of development interventions, and the desired outcomes as determined by the community (see Alexiou et al, 2013 for research exploring the value of community led design). It is worth noting the changing language from top down ‘regional development’ to community-led approaches such as co-production and ABCD that necessitate a smaller scale approach. This changing terminology reflects a shift from centralised perceptions of socially constructed ‘regions’ as distinct and internally homogeneous, to realising places as having multiple identities reflecting the diverse array of non-geographical communities within places.

For a place based approach to be successful, it is crucial to develop and utilise local networks and build social capital. This necessitates the development of local infrastructures requiring coordination by a national support structure to avoid the further entrenchment of geographical inequalities. As place-based approaches are locally led, they must be inclusive to avoid powerful individuals and institutions at a micro level dictating community development and thereby falling into the same traps as top-down regional development strategies. At a local level, a diverse range of perspectives must be captured and a space should be created to build consensus of development priorities and community needs. Place based approaches suggest an internal process, and while it is important to create and strengthen internal networks, it is equally important to develop external networks linking with other places and institutions. In reaction to accelerating globalisation processes, places can become defensive and reactionary, however, Massey (2004) argues that we need to create a progressive sense of place that’s ‘not self-enclosing and defensive but outward looking’. Instead of becoming more internally focused, places must become better networked, externally as well as internally. Regional development from the 1980s up until now has been dominated by strategies involving regions competing against each other for investment, whereas place-based approaches promote collaborative knowledge-sharing networks for inclusive and sustainable economic development.

The evidence base of place-based approaches has been developed by non-state actors, most notably of which is the ‘Making a Difference in Burnley’ project, involving a collaboration of twelve of The Prince’s Charities working strategically with the voluntary, public and private sector to build social capital and reverse long term economic stagnation and levels of deprivation (see Grant, 2011 for the evaluation of the project). This holistic approach was designed to tackle a wide range of the challenges and barriers to growth specifically within the context of Burnley. Since implementing this project, Burnley has attracted new private sector investment bringing high levels of private sector job growth, particularly in the field of skilled manufacturing, and in 2013 the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills recognised Burnley with the ‘Most Enterprising Area in the UK’ award. This approach has been replicated in three other deprived areas of England forming ‘The Place Strategy’, and provides an innovative framework for tackling entrenched deprivation with proven success and replicability.

From a policy perspective, place based approaches and asset based community development mark a shift from ‘government’ to ‘governance’ whereby cross-sector leadership can be used to organise local residents to identify local priorities and find solutions based on the already existing assets within a place. This often requires lower levels of state investment compared with traditional models of economic development and builds capacity within civil society. This aligns with the Conservatives’ vision to build a ‘Big Society’ of a ‘more engaged nation, one in which we take more responsibility for ourselves and our neighbours; communities working together, not depending on remote and impersonal bureaucracies’ (The Conservative Party Manifesto, 2015: 45), and necessitates public service reform. The 2011 Localism Act has enabled communities at a grassroots level to have greater control by creating new platforms for local residents to have a voice in their community and providing the tools to empower local residents. Furthermore, the Our Place programme implemented by the Department for Communities and Local Government has been designed to enable neighbourhoods to redesign local services to find areas of mutual benefit by improving local service provision to create a service more aligned with the needs of local residents and therefore enabling local authorities to deliver better value for money. However, despite the potential for building the capacity of communities and regenerating civil society, the localism agenda has been designed and implemented within the context of austerity, which has been shown to have a highly uneven impact on particular geographical communities and demographics (see Beatty and Fothergill, 2016) and could limit the extent to which disempowered communities are able to engage with this legislation and take advantage of government programmes.

The utilisation of place based approaches in policy mark a re-convergence between policy and academia. Although a degree of cynicism surrounds the government’s use of this approach as a tool in public service reform, robust evaluations suggest that place based approaches work and can create sustainable change, benefiting both communities and government. As the evidence base for this approach continues to develop, it is clear that place based approaches have the potential to galvanise civil society, transform public service provision and strengthen the interaction between civil society and state actors.

Claire McGrath
Claire McGrath is a former Policy Adviser Intern in the Cabinet Office, and a current PhD student at the University of the Glasgow. Her current research explores the changes taking place in the credit union movement in Scotland, and in particular, how the state influences the trajectory of the sector. Past research has included the changing scale at which trade unions operate, and the impact of the financial crisis on Edinburgh as a regional financial centre. Claire has a first class degree in Geography from the University of Glasgow and a Masters with distinction in Globalisation and Development from Queen Mary, University of London.


Alexiou, K., Zamenopoulos, T. and Alevizou, G. (2013) Valuing Community-Led Design. AHRC Discussion Paper. Accessed at http://oro.open.ac.uk/39646/1/vcld_summary_report.pdf.

Barca, F., McCann, P. and Rodriguez-Pose, A. (2012) The Case for Regional Development Intervention: Place-based versus place-neutral approaches, Journal of Regional Science, Vol. 52(1): 134 – 152.

Beatty, C. and Fothergill, S. (2016) The Uneven Impact of Welfare Reform: The financial losses to places and people. Accessed at https://www4.shu.ac.uk/research/cresr/sites/shu.ac.uk/files/welfare-reform-2016_1.pdf.

The Conservative Party (2015) The Conservative Party Manifesto 2015. Accessed at https://www.conservatives.com/manifesto.

Grant, P. (2011) Making a Difference in Burnley: An evaluation of the role played by The Prince’s Charities. Cass Business School, City University, London. Accessed at https://www.princeofwales.gov.uk/sites/default/files/documents/Princes%20Charities%20Full%20Report.pdf.

Hirschman, A. O. (1958) The Strategy of Economic Development. Yale University Press.

Massey, D. (2004) Geographies of Responsibility. Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography, 86(1): 5–18.

Massey, D. (2007) World City. Polity Press.

Rostow, W. W. (1959) The Stages of Economic Growth. London: Cambridge University Press.

World Bank (2009) World Development Report 2009 : Reshaping Economic Geography, accessed at http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/EXTDEC/EXTRESEARCH/EXTWDRS/0,,contentMDK:23080183~pagePK:478093~piPK:477627~theSitePK:477624,00.html.