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The Deep Place Approach – Originally an Article for New Start Magazine, 2015

In 2014 we published our report ‘Toward a New Settlement: A Deep Place Approach to Equitable and Sustainable Places, which sought to address one core question: what type of economy and society do we need to create to achieve economic, social, cultural and environmental sustainability by 2030?  Our concern was, and remains, a search for a solution to the seemingly intractable problems of continuing inequality and poor economic performance in some of our most disadvantaged communities. 

Our inspiration for addressing this question was based on our frustration with what has become orthodox social and economic discourse, that there should be a process of ‘managed decline’ in the post-industrial communities.  In this view dispersed industrial towns, such as those found across the South Wales Valleys, can expect at best to provide dormitory locations from where middle to low earning workers commute to employment in agglomerated internationally competitive city economies, and where a residualised section of the population slips further away from economic activity.  We completely reject this view, and our research has sought to find a different future for these undoubtedly disadvantaged communities.

Based on our Deep Place methodology, we undertook our initial ‘Deep Place Study’ in Tredegar in Blaenau Gwent, and we have continued to further develop our approach since.  The Tredegar report identified seventeen action points relating to the local economy, public service delivery and governance, that we argued would collectively provide a route map toward a more sustainable future for the local community.

Though we have developed our thinking and approach further since the Tredegar report, our approach continues to be influenced by the CRESC ‘Foundational Economy’ model.  The Foundational Economy is area of the economy where 40% of the UK workforce is employed in providing services such as social care, utilities, telecommunications and food.  In Tredegar, therefore, we argued for more localised economic activity in the town, which we believe can both eradicate poverty and achieve sustainability.  We identified four key local economic ‘sectors’ that are critical to the future success of a more localised economy in Tredegar: food; energy conservation and generation; the care sector; and, e-commerce and employment.

Since the publication of the Tredegar report at a highly successful conference in Tredegar, Welsh Government has appointed a ‘Place Coordinator’ to attempt to build a delivery coalition in Blaenau Gwent to take the Deep Place Study and it’s recommendations forward.  We have provided a series of briefings to Ministers and officials in Welsh Government, Blaenau Gwent Council and local service delivery agencies, many of who were represented on the project steering group.  A recent report of the National Assembly for Wales Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee has identified the Deep Place approach as an example of good practice.

Since the publication of the Tredegar report, having both now left CREW, we have concentrated on further developing the Deep Place approach.  One of us has been using the Deep Place approach working with communities in New South Wales and Queensland, Australia, whilst the other continues to work in the UK.

Our Deep Place approach identifies the actual underlying  ’cause of the causes’ of poverty as long-term economic inactivity that can exist at a communal level.   Reconnecting those communities and the individuals who live there with employment opportunities is the primary means for combating long-term poverty and social exclusion.  This is especially true for young people where collective experiences have created a peer culture with very low aspiration and associated patterns of learning disengagement. The Deep Place approach creates employment potential by examining the locally specific sectors of the economy where growth is possible and where the lower level skills sets required allow recruitment of unskilled people with low levels of confidence and experience.  We have termed this the ‘distributed economy’.

Borrowed from environmental analyses in the early-mid 2000s, the term ‘distributed economy’ has not enjoyed currency to date and we propose to advance its use in the context of a more spatially distributed model of the economy.  Neoliberalism has generally been highly supportive of urbanisation, agglomeration and concentration of productive capacity.  A focus on GDP and GVA as a measurement of economic wellbeing has favoured sectors of the economy that function best within this model to the detriment of the foundational economy.    The foundational economy is not concentrated in high-tech parks, Central Business Districts or business zones, but rather is distributed wherever the population that use the goods and services provided by the foundational economy actually live.

In the distributed economy approach, economic activity is seen as a more grid like structure in a similar way to utility distribution grids.  This is in contrast to the conventional model based on centres of production and peripheral areas.  The grid conception allows us to see the ways in which even the most disadvantaged communities are connected to the overall economy.  This can focus us on the actions needed to improve economic performance in the lower performing areas of the grid. In our conference paper to the Regional Studies Association in Melbourne, Australia this month we give further details of our ‘distributed economy’ approach, which continues to develop the Deep Place approach, and we hope to publish a fuller article on this soon. 

Practical Ideas Drawn from the Study

  • We believe a focus on place can be a invaluable tool for making policy decisions, particularly in those policies seeking to address two significant and, we argue, interconnected social policy problems: how to overcome the inequitable distribution of wealth, and the unacceptable concentration of poverty in post-industrial areas; and, how to effectively adjust to a more environmentally sustainable economic model.
  • Since the publication of the Tredegar report we have strengthened our emphasis on the creation of what we call a ‘Coalition for Change’, which must be embedded in the development of each Deep Place Plan.
  • Our Deep Place approach is a methodological model, its application is place specific, meaning that we do not believe that any two places have the same identical challenges and opportunities.  There is no standard fix.
  • In contrast to ‘trickle down’ theory we believe economic development must be more widely distributed to create employment at the local level.  Concentrating resources in already economically performing areas does not lead to increased employment in marginalised communities through some kind of osmotic transfer of opportunity.