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A Tale of a Divided Britain

19th February 2020 by Richard Brabner

  • New polling for the UPP Foundation sheds light on the public’s domestic priorities following the election
  • People who live in cities are almost twice as likely as those who live in small towns to say their area is improving
  • Younger people and more affluent people similarly positive; but older and those on modest incomes are dispirited
  • Access to NHS, housing, and declining high streets are seen as the biggest challenges
  • People are positive about the role universities can play in their area, but awareness is limited, and over a third of people – and over 4 in 10 working class people –  have never visited their local university
  • Most people would prefer that graduates return to their local area after graduation

New polling for the UPP Foundation, the registered charity founded by University Partnerships Programme (UPP), carried out by Public First, shows a stark divide between the various communities in Britain as to how they feel their local areas have fared over their time living there.

At a time when much political attention is being given to how to ‘level up’ areas of the country that have fared less well in recent years, the polling shows a great divide between how different parts of their country see their everyday lives.

Divided Britain

There are sharp differences in how people view their community by the type of area they live in, by their age, and by their financial circumstances.

  • While 30% of people who live in cities say that their local area has improved (39% the same, 25% worse), this figure decreases to 22% of those who live in large towns, and only 17% for those who live in small towns – almost half of the figure for those who live in cities.
  • Younger people are the most positive. 31% of those aged 18-24 believe their local area has improved (38% think it is the same, 21% has got worse), but only 26% of 35-44 year olds, and 14% of 55-64 year olds – fewer than half as many seeing improvement as the 18-24s.
  • While respondents in London, Scotland, and Wales felt that their local areas had improved in recent years, those in the East of England, East Midlands, and even the prosperous South East believe there has been decline.

Priorities for improving their local area

With the new government making bold statements about regional infrastructure, transport links such as HS2, and relocating major civic institutions such as the House of Lords to ‘level up’ across the country, this polling also sheds light on the public’s real priorities for improvement in their area.

When asked about their various priorities for improving their local area, people across towns, cities and villages alike agree:

  • 49% of voters believe that the cost and availability of housing is one of the most important issues facing their local area
  • 48% of voters stated that access to local NHS services was a key priority
  • 48% said the decline of the high street was one of the most important issues facing their local area

Along with concerns about integration and immigration, which also ranked highly, these are going to be important issues to many voters – and their new MPs – in the coming years.

Effectiveness of civic institutions in improving local areas

Although voters are familiar with the local civic and other institutions active in their local area, they have typically low levels of satisfaction with how well they are performing to improve a local area.

  • Local MPs  – 21% of respondents think they’re doing a good job for their local area
  • Local government / council – 21%
  • Local businesses – 29%
  • Local cultural institutions (museums, galleries etc) – 29%
  • Local universities – 30%
  • Local sports clubs and teams – 33%
  • Local hospitals – 34%
  • Local charities – 34%

The role of universities in improving local areas

Universities have been increasingly focussed on the role they can play in their local area in recent years. But despite the expansion of higher education, the public’s overall awareness of their local universities is relatively low.

  • Over a third of people (36%) have never visited their local university – rising to 41% of C2DE residents
  • Awareness is low even for those living within very close proximity to one or more institutions – 33% of city dwellers have never visited their local university

There are regional splits in how well people think their university is doing to improve their local area. People in Scotland (44%), Yorks and Humber (37%), the North East (35%) and the West Midlands and East Midlands (34% each) are more likely to think a university is doing a good job locally than those in the South East and East of England (both 23%), South West (24%) and  London (26%).

People are positive about the potential role that universities can play. 59% of respondents want universities to play a greater role in their local economy, and 50% of the public agree that universities can and should be involved in the delivery of government services in a local area.

One of the issues often raised in policy debates is whether it is better that graduates return to their home communities after studying, or whether it is better if they migrate to the UK’s larger cities. This research shows that by an over a 2:1 majority people would prefer graduates to return to their local area. This figure increases to 47% in the north east of England, and to over 50% in Scotland and Northern Ireland. 

The polling was conducted as part of a project looking at the role of universities, as part of their civic responsibilities, to help address the government’s levelling-up agenda. A final report will be published in the Spring.

Richard Brabner, Director of UPP Foundation said

“Our post-election polling points to a divided Britain and underlines the need for the government to double down on its focus on towns to help ‘level up the country’.

Organisations embedded in their communities will be key to revitalising towns. Local institutions and civil society should be supported by government to deliver this agenda.

Taking the higher education sector as an example, it is clear that there’s a real appetite amongst universities to support  ‘left behind’ places in their regions, and the public is extremely positive about the role universities could play too.

However, with 36% of people having never visited their local university – rising to 41% for those in the C2DE social economic groups, there is much for our sector to do to engage all parts of our society.

To grow trust and support, universities should be particularly focussed on demonstrating their public value to areas which do not benefit from having a university on their doorstep.”

Download full polling results

Download PDF Download Spreadsheet

Richard Brabner

Richard Brabner is the Director of UPP Foundation

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