Conference: A future for post-industrial communities?

Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change

Jane Holgate is Professor of work and employment relations at the Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change at the University of Leeds.

CERIC staff group photograph

A two-day conference taking place on 23 and 24 March 2017 is being hosted by the Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change (CERIC), the Leeds Social Sciences Institute (LSSI), and the charity HOPE not hate. It will take place at the University of Leeds in the Liberty Building.

The conference – “A future for post-industrial communities?” – will be attended by practitioners and academics looking to find ways to address the multitude of challenges faced by communities affected by de-industrialisation.

While de-industrialisation began before the Thatcher governments of the 1980s, it has continued to accelerate, and today the process is felt hardest in previously industrialised towns, where docks, mines, steelworks and car plants once provided a strong working class identity and where there was skilled employment and a living wage.

There is strong evidence to suggest that these old industrial towns and cities that lost out most from the far-reaching economic change over the last 40 years are one of the key driving forces behind the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.

Working class communities did not necessarily like the industries of their towns – the work was often hard, dirty (and unhealthy) and involved unsocial shifts – but they liked the possibilities that an industrial wage provided. Most importantly, they liked the prospect that the next generation would get an education and have more opportunities than the current one, and, of course, the prospect of retiring with a good pension.

Today, in post-industrial towns there is a loss of identity, community networks, and, in many cases, hope. The jobs that have replaced displaced industries are low skilled, low wage, and often involve zero hours contracts, minimum wage and bogus ‘self-employment’ that excludes workers from employment rights.

It is not surprising that people are despondent, and angry, and that some of that anger is finding its expression in deep divisions between communities. The Brexit voting patterns of these old industrial areas shows that these factors contributed significantly towards these feelings of exclusion and the sense that these areas were being left behind.

A report from the Inclusive Growth Commission analysed the voting patterns of old industrial areas and found that ‘the vast majority of old industrial areas in England and Wales voted to leave the EU at higher than the England and Wales average of 53%. Over half had Leave percentages of 60% and over, making up a significant chunk of the national cohort of High-Brexit areas’.

Far right groups are repeatedly visiting these post-industrial towns seeking to create or exploit tensions between communities. Yet, it is a tribute to the affected communities that these provocations have seldom found an audience within the towns themselves.

But the problems remain – divided communities; little, or no, strategic regeneration; communities whose educational attainment (for reasons wholly unrelated to their potential) is stubbornly below the national average; poor housing conditions; pockets of high levels of morbidity and lower levels of life expectancy.

HOPE not hate is working with these communities to support them to address the challenges they face. We recognised early on that simply challenging narratives of division, in the absence of a ‘narrative of hope’, was not going to be effective. However, the issues in these communities, some of which have been evolving for nearly half a century, are too complex for simple platitudes.

With speakers and attendees including academics, politicians, faith groups, community groups, charities and businesses, we hope that this conference will lead to a plan of action that will achieve some real impact in the post-industrialised communities.

Rather than the standard conference format of long presentations, we will be using the PechaKucha style – a presentation format where each speaker uses 20 slides, with each slide lasting 20 seconds. The slides move on automatically and the presenter addresses the points on each new slide. This helps keep the presenter on topic, and on time! This format will allow for multiple speakers to share their ideas over a short period of time.

Speakers include: John Page, national organiser for HOPE not hate; Professor Mark Stuart, Director of CERIC; Andy Lock, Coalfields Community Trust; Reverend Al Barrett, Hodge Hill Church Birmingham; Hilary Benn, MP Leeds Central and Dr Mark Stears, New Economic Forum.

There will also be a number of workshops for practitioners and academics to work together, pooling their practical experience and their theoretical contributions, to create new knowledge that will shape a ‘theory of change’ that itself gives rise to a plan of action.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University Business School or the University of Leeds.