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  • Writer's pictureMike Spicer

Exploring inequality and the post-industrial roots of the UK economic crisis with Danny Dorling

In this episode of LED Confidential, David and Mike are joined by Professor Danny Dorling, the Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography at the University of Oxford, to discuss his new book 'Shattered Nation'. They explore the roots of income and wealth disparities in contemporary Britain, what this means for the real lives of poorer households and communities, and how local economic development can provide solutions to the giants of 21st century poverty.

Turning down the thermostat to save money

How and why has UK society become more unequal since the 1970s?

In the episode, Professor Dorling references Dickens’s Christmas Carol of the 19th century, and the Beveridge report of the 1940s, to illustrate how understanding and addressing inequality must take a long-term, intergenerational perspective. The 1920s – 1970s was a period when the UK broadly reduced inequalities – expanding education opportunity and access to health services. By the 1970s, the UK was – on several measures - the most equal nation in Europe after Sweden. But the UK’s long-term response to 1970s oil shocks, loss of preferential access to former colonial markets overseas, and increasing public acceptance of excess wealth, spawned a neo-liberal ethos quite different to the Nordics. By the early 2020s, the UK was one of the most unequal countries in Europe and an outlier in terms of spatial disparities.

These long-term trends have profound human consequences – illustrated by contemporary examples of Dickensian squalor, such as lighting candles or washing in cold water to save energy and heating bills.

How far can local economic development address inequality and the UK economic crisis?

Between global forces and local consequences, Professor Dorling is a passionate advocate of local action – much of it either delivered or enabled by local authorities and their institutional partners. Municipal active intervention in health and utilities, for instance, was a precursor to and built the case for the National Health Service and nationalised industries post-WW2. Today Scotland and Wales have led the way in following policies that aim to promote equality, from child benefits to vaccine roll-out to private rental controls to higher education funding. And interventionist local authorities have catalysed important innovations from Preston’s circular economy work to Oxford’s approach to homelessness.

Both of us were encouraged by Professor Dorling’s analysis to suggest a future LEDC round table to explore local bottom-up initiatives in LED and placemaking that have wider scale up and scale out potential. What do you think?

How can local and national policy action work together to address inequality?

Local and social innovation is critical. But it needs a supportive and enabling national context. Professor Dorling’s example of the scale of resource transfer from West to East to deliver German unification echoed LEDC’s own episode earlier this year about resource requirements for a London 2012 Olympics that transformed Inner East London and the Lea Valley. In a week where Government announces an – as yet unconfirmed – amount that could exceed £500m to support Tata’s ambitions for a battery factory in Somerset, the focus of national place-based spend is highly skewed.

More extended and better resourced devolution will help – but only if Mayors eschew ‘great man’ approaches to leadership. Building the talented, inclusive, committed and sometimes challenging leadership team is as important as the charisma of an individual. And building these types of partnership and joint working arrangements is where LED and placemaking professionals have major vital contributions to make.

Are there reasons to be hopeful that UK society can become richer and more equal?

The episode touches on several reasons for optimism in the face of the UK economic crisis. Firstly – historical resilience. The UK has faced economic challenges and inequality throughout its history but has also shown resilience and the capacity to address these issues, as shown by the periods after both World Wars. Technological advancements and innovation also offer new opportunities for addressing economic disparities. These advancements can create new industries, foster job growth, and transform the delivery of public services. And the moves towards greater decentralisation of decision-making in government – however hesitant – has the potential to empower communities to address economic challenges at the grassroots level.


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