Learning about place: means, inclusion and power
In this blog post John Hitchin, CEO, explains how our thinking on place has evolved in the last two years through our experiences of working with places and organisations, evaluating place-based programmes, and doing the hard-yards of place-based facilitation. At the same time, there has been a growing interest from the government in place through the ‘Levelling Up’ agenda.
In the last two years, the most important thing we have learnt is that thinking about place as a means of social change creates the opportunity for ever greater emphasis on new power and inclusivity. If you don’t take that opportunity, then it is largely an exercise in shuffling the deckchairs.
Open and closed doors
I recently had a fascinating conversation with Michael Little from Ratio about Renaisi, place, strategy and evaluation. We talked through how different parts of our work at Renaisi connected to the concept of place.
Our consultancy work is driven by evaluative questions and practice. At Renaisi we have always seen evaluation as a potential backdoor to strategy, but at times it can feel more like a false door. One that promises to open up to the bigger organisational questions, but remains locked.
The performative nature of some work on impact can feel dispiriting but there has been a growing shift toward new questions across the social sector (like this example from Genevieve Matiland Hudson of SIB). More and more organisations are asking learning and developmental questions, rather than tight evaluation and impact measurement questions. The strategic decision-making questions about places are better suited to developmental learning that focuses on evolving relationships and shifting power dynamics, rather than traditional evaluations that aim to control and predict.
At the same time, we see our frontline support to economically excluded Londoners as a way to both help those people into work, and as a doorway for us to learn more about the realities of local economies and communities. On a bad day our advisors can feel pushed by commissioned contracts to hit targets and move people on. On a good day, our team gets to support people, whether refugees or long-term unemployed residents, into a wider system of support, and ask the bigger questions of what people want and need from their lives. The power of place here is that it encourages the building of relationships that are systemic rather than programmatic.
In both our consultancy work and our frontline delivery, place is the means to a human end, and not an end in itself.
Leaving things out is necessary
Seth Godin’s final point in his blog is so powerful when thinking about places. It was one of the points I made in my 2019 essay on place; everyone draws a different map and they all leave something out to tell a story that is important to that person or organisation about their place. That map or story is the result of experience, incentives and strategic choices by those individuals or organisations.
I fear that the language of Levelling Up sees place as an end (“we will improve this place”), and as a result it claims to draw a perfect map. A single map for a place that gets levelled up. Too often when we talk about place-based change, we think that it has to be a perfect image of the ‘real’ geography. It can’t be.
In ‘levelling up’ places politicians tend to focus on the ends. “We’ll make your place better, unlike others who didn’t care about you and your place.” But when you’re thinking about how the employment system, local social action, homelessness, or support for children and young people is working in your place, you are using place as a means. You are using the context of the place to boundary your work in a way that is different to a targeted programme, for example. The boundary of place doesn’t stop at the programme or organisation’s edge and you can look to bring in different kinds of assets.
The assets that can be brought into conversations about improving a place, such as anchor institutions, community activity and power, pubs, or ownership of bits of the high street, are why place-based approaches are seen as having so much potential. Using place allows you to think beyond the programmatic and expand the scope of resources, assets and relationships.
Levelling up the European Super League
The six English football clubs that cut themselves off from the structures of other competitions, to create the European Super League, is an example of a wealthy elite extracting an asset from a place. You can see why politicians who have been talking about levelling up places, weren’t keen on that significant asset being disconnected from those same places. But I was struck by a recent New Statesman politics podcast in which Stephen Bush and Ailbhe Rea talked about the role of gender and a type of masculinity in conversations about football in politics. For me, it was a perfect example of how place can exclude. I love football and I connect to conversations about the role of football clubs in their communities. But does everyone? Or is it perhaps a majority, that excludes a very large minority? Is a town defined by a sports team any more than another institution?
Place in policy, at its best, should force us to think about who is not in the room. What does a conversation about football clubs do to the maps we draw of places? In this instance, what map is it drawing for people who don’t care for football? In other instances it could be maps that exclude communities of race, faith, or cultural preference.
Place will always be used as a political tool, about ends – “we will improve your place” – but it can be a more powerful policy tool for means: using place as a way to think about how we solve particular challenges. Whatever way we are looking at place, there is always the possibility for inclusion and exclusion. Because each map leaves something out.
Place as a means to inclusion
Understanding the perspectives of all stakeholders within a place is fundamental to the success or failure of place-based services and policy. We have seen that in the last year through our work in Southwark as part of the Local Access Partnership, thinking about social investment and inequity. We’ve also seen it in the work of:
- Right to Succeed in North Birkenhead supporting children and young people.
- The Peel Institute in South Islington and their role as a community centre in an evolving place.
- Black Thrive in Lambeth on racial inequity.
Moving the conversation about place from ends to means can lose a lot of people who thought place was an obvious concept. “Let’s improve Newcastle” sounds good but where do you even begin? Means-based conversations – “how can working with the concept of place help us end homelessness in Newcastle” – is more likely to get towards building an honest map that leaves things out, negotiates how to bring alternate perspectives in, and is constantly asking questions about relationships and power.
If place-based work seriously explores relationships, challenges power, engenders new power, and redesigns how things are done locally, then maybe we will get somewhere. I think that only happens if we use place to force inclusivity on ourselves over and over again. Who is not in the room? Who are we excluding with this map of the place? And how can we include them?