Social Infrastructure and Community Resilience in ‘left behind’ communities in the North East

The challenge of ‘left behind’ communities has been a growing concern to national and regional policymakers since the political shockwaves of the 2016 EU referendum and the election of Donald Trump. ‘Left behind’ is useful shorthand for understanding geographical inequality and denotes places that have missed out on economic growth since deindustrialisation. However, the phrase is imprecise, potentially pejorative, and obscures the diversity and complexity of problems faced by different communities. Consequently, policy-making fails to meet community needs, contributing to political discontent and the perception that these are ‘places that do not matter.’

The new devolution deal for the North East offers a fresh opportunity for the region to direct investment to support areas most impacted by economic decline. Insights North East is releasing two outputs that analyse ‘left behind’ places beyond a narrow economic framework. This research provides actionable insights for regional policymakers exploring ways to direct investment that address wider issues of place, community, and belonging. Both reports engage with evidence from communities to present the challenges and opportunities of ‘left behind’ towns in the Durham Coalfields. As a result, they provide recommendations aligned with these communities’ specific needs.

(1) Social Infrastructure and Left Behind Places is a policy briefing summarising the work of John Tomaney and his team at UCL. Their research uses a deep place study of Sacriston in Durham to examine the making, unmaking, and remaking of social infrastructure in ‘left behind’ communities and elicit a series of policy recommendations, summarised in this briefing.

(2) Building a resilient community network in the former Durham coalfield is a report produced by Insights North East in conjunction with Redhills Durham. The study examines the challenges community organisations face in former mining villages and towns and how these organisations fill the gaps left by the withdrawal of central and local government services.

These studies point to a range of policy interventions that meet the requirements of specific communities. They demonstrate the need to move beyond a simple range of indicators to rethink and remake the policy model by building new evidence bases that promote a deeper understanding of place and belonging in ‘left behind’ communities. This would allow community groups to better communicate the impact of their work. Both studies show the value of a different longer-term funding model that provides the time to build social infrastructure. They illustrate the central role of social infrastructure and support for community groups in local regeneration plans.

Only a few decades ago, the communities of the Durham coalfields were thriving places with strong local economies and community organisations. Both these studies demonstrate the potential for renewal, led by those working across the community to make rigid funding rules work for their communities, filling the gaps where national policy has failed. These reports recommend a policy shift from focusing on growth towards remaking places. By deepening our understanding and building more imaginative policies, these communities can thrive again.