James Frayne: Six ways of boosting local pride and identity

8 Dec

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

In an excellent recent blog, my colleague Andy Westwood of Manchester University called on the Government to pursue a local identity strategy.

In it, he wrote: “Buying or subsidising a hotel, pier or football club might not sit easily with notions of the role of government, nor a faith in competition rules. It goes against the grain of markets, state aid and traditional Conservative views of the state. There are lots of arguments about why we shouldn’t attempt such an approach. But if we really want to care about ‘place’ and identity then we should put these objections aside.”

He is right. Local identity should be a defining part of the Government’s “levelling up” agenda. While new investment in infrastructure and education and skills are ultimately what’s needed to improve post-industrial areas, local people will have to wait many years to reap the benefits of such policy decisions.

But the Government can do a lot in a short space of time to improve towns and cities by thinking about things through the prism of local identity. A key question should be: how do we make these towns nicer places to live? A simple question – but one which would drive different policy answers to simply asking how we deliver more jobs.

Here is what focus groups tell you people in post-industrial areas want to see. They say their towns and cities were thriving until the late 1990s, but have been in increasingly rapid decline ever since. Shops have closed on once-busy high streets, bustling markets are a distant memory, local businesses have moved out, once-great festivals have been downgraded or ceased altogether, community pubs have shut, low-level anti-social behaviour (like open drug use) has risen massively, attractive local focal points such as war memorials have been vandalised.

While the sense of malaise in these towns and cities is unmistakable, equally unmistakable is the sense of local pride people have for the places they live in. People are angry about the state of their towns because they love them. This is what the Government should be looking to tap into.

This can sound a bit vague and woolly, but it doesn’t have to be so. For a start, it’s important to acknowledge that England really is unusual in the intensity of very local identity. In a tiny country, small towns, often separated by just a few miles, think of themselves as being entirely different from their near-neighbours – and indeed they often sound completely different.

Think of the huge differences between, say, Mansfield and Rotherham. 25 miles apart and on paper quite similar, but people who consider themselves to be totally different; and remarkably, who sound totally different despite being separated by a car journey of half an hour.

Nor does renewing local identity all have to be a 30-year project. Some parts of such a project, to be clear, does: if you are going to make devolution work, revive major civic institutions and change the role of universities in their place – as well as build major infrastructure – you won’t see the results overnight. But there’s also a lot that can be done in four years, with tangible results. Here are some illustrative examples of things that a combination of national and local Government might do:

  • Keep the streets clean and safe. As well as generally increasing the visible police presence, pay for security guards to walk through the high street during the hours that the shops are open, and deploy others to walk through local parks.
  • Bring back the events. Everywhere I go, people have a local event – a carnival, a fireworks display, a special annual market – that used to bring people together and that disappeared in the last few years. The Government should help bring them back.
  • For that matter, there should be incentives to restore a local market day. Many towns still have the basic infrastructure – and certainly the space – to bring back the sorts of large markets that existed on Saturday mornings and which brought huge commerce to small towns. This basic infrastructure should be repaired or rebuilt.
  • Some transport takes decades to deliver, but regular, inexpensive buses don’t.
  • Invest in those institutions that are delivering leisure services to the local community. Long Eaton United is an example of a thriving local institution of the kind I’m thinking of. Its training facilities – partly grant-funded – are used to ensure that huge numbers of teams – for men, women, boys and girls – are all able to play. There are huge numbers of similar clubs across the country who could play a similarly important role locally.
  • Support libraries and local museums. Cultural infrastructure needs funding and supporting.

As we deliver the levelling up funds and the towns funds, plus the safer streets money, and all of the plethora of pots the government has (very sensibly) been putting into these kinds of efforts, government needs to make sure it doesn’t just go on long-term infrastructure like broadband, or local economic zones.

Important though these are, the Government needs to ensure they’re making a tangible and visible difference to towns. Without that, no one will give it permission to do longer term work – and, to be honest, this is what people care about most.

Philip Davies: Our frontline staff are vital to our economic recovery, and we must do more to support them.

6 Dec

Philip Davies is MP for Shipley & Co-Chairman of the APPG on Customer Service

Ten months on from the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, we continue to face daily challenges as we navigate its far reaching impacts on our economy and society.

Since the start of the crisis, we’ve seen inspiring examples of the nation come together, with moving tributes to the NHS and those who have worked tirelessly to keep us safe. Yet, amongst these shows of support, a concerning trend has emerged across the country – with instances of hostility toward frontline staff on the rise.

Research from the Institute of Customer Service indicates that over half of customer-facing staff have experienced abuse from customers since the pandemic began. The worrying figures span every sector – from retail to public transport networks and even financial services. As we deal with the impact of new restrictions and the onset of the busy festive season, it’s more important than ever that we step up and protect our frontline workers.

The new localised tier system will, in itself, present new challenges, as increasingly frustrated customers kick back against restrictions. As customers looking to enjoy traditional Christmas festivities are told they can only enjoy their drinks with a “substantial meal”, and those looking for last-minute Christmas presents are presented with long queues as stores try to ensure social distancing guidelines are met, I fear that the dwindling patience of the public could put our customer-facing staff at even greater risk of abuse.

I am working with the Institute of Customer Service on a campaign, “Service with Respect”, which encourages businesses and the government to do more to protect these workers.

Alongside my colleague, the Labour MP Chris Evans, and over 100 big-name brands, including O2, Boots and Nationwide, we are calling for the introduction of a specific offence for anyone who abuses customer facing staff.

We’re also encouraging organisations across the county to invest in additional training for their employees, to ensure they are adequately prepared for the ever changing requirements of their roles as we continue to navigate these challenging times.

Through a series of All-Party Parliamentary Group meetings, we have heard concerning and wide-ranging reports from across the nation – with instances ranging from verbal abuse, being shouted and sworn at, to more extreme cases of physical violence.

With 80 per cent of the UK’s employees working in the service sector, the scale of the issue is extremely concerning: and research shows it is not limited simply to face to face interactions. Those working in contact centres have reported occurrences of hostility through phone and online chat services. Combined with increased workloads as the number of vulnerable customers rises, the potential psychological impacts of such behaviour should not be ignored.

In Parliament, I recently asked the Home Secretary what steps her Department is taking to ensure that customer service staff are protected from abuse during the Covid-19 lockdown.

In response, she outlined that any such abuse is unacceptable, and that the Government is working closely with the National Retail Crime Steering Group to deliver a programme of work aiming to provide better support to victims, improve reporting, increase data sharing and raise awareness of this crime.

Whilst this initial response is welcomed, and it’s encouraging to see the issue being taken seriously, I fear this narrow view on the retail sector alone does not go far enough. Our research has clearly shown that instances of hostility span multiple sectors, and the plight of those outside of retail risks being overlooked.

Any form of abuse, in all aspects of life, is completely unacceptable, but we should remind ourselves that these workers have been operating on the frontline since the beginning of the pandemic. They have kept our nation running in the most difficult of times – keeping our building lights on, shelves stocked and basic power and water supplies running. We all have a duty to ensure they have the training and respect they deserve to safely carry out their crucial roles.

With different tiered restrictions remaining in place across the country, the role of customer facing staff continues to expand, with many taking on additional responsibilities for ensuring social distancing measures are adhered to and hygiene requirements met. In the face of a progressively frustrated and restless customer base as we approach the busy Christmas season, there is reason that these concerning instances of abuse could continue to rise.

The pandemic continues to bring daily challenges across all aspects of our lives. Yet as we try to rebuild, customer-facing staff will be vital to our recovery, and we must show them they are a valued part of our nation. And this starts by enabling them to do their work safely, effectively and free from the fear of abuse.