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25 Nov 2022


Politics and Society

Jack Shaw dissects civic pride, drawing lessons from Japan to highlight that local pride is ill-defined in the UK and more broadly constituted than the government suggests. 

Ideas surrounding civic pride have re-entered political discourse in recent years. The story told about it is familiar. Relative economic decline and the erosion of community and identity have created a deficit in civic pride across the UK which has disproportionately affected post-industrial cities, coastal towns and rural communities. As a result, policymakers have focused on ‘restoring’ pride which has been ‘lost’.

At the Bennett Institute, our analysis challenges the simplicity of this story. We suggest that the uncertainty surrounding the geography of pride has led the government to conflate emotional and economic geographies, yet even the most deprived areas possess significant civic pride.

Though the relationship between deprivation and affluence exists, it’s not automatic and evidence suggests that a sense of belonging is highest in the relatively deprived North East and lowest in more affluent London and the South East.

The ingredients central to boosting civic pride are also broader than envisioned in Whitehall. Cosmetic, short-term changes to high streets need to give way to their fundamental re-imagining; culture and sport need to be read broadly to ensure that interpretations of pride are inclusive – which means football clubs and pubs are as deserving of investment as other cultural amenities – and certain policy domains that the White Paper draw on require further investigation. It’s unclear, for example, why the government turns to homicide rates or serious violence to explain deficits in pride.

Civic pride is more than the physical infrastructure of a place too; it’s about celebrating local histories and giving communities agency in and ownership over the issues that matter to them. Though challenging, understanding why people are proud of the communities they live in – and where they are not, what can be done about it – is an objective policymakers must take seriously.

In the same way ‘left-behind’ places aren’t exclusive to the UK – with ‘rustbelt’ and ‘legacy cities’ in the US or ‘suspended regions’ in Germany – questions surrounding civic pride aren’t novel either. Drawing on international evidence can teach us about the idiosyncrasies and shortcomings of contemporary British interpretations of civic pride.

Turning to Japan, civic pride is more defined and explicitly boosterish. Many municipalities have adopted ‘civic pride charters’ which set out the contours of how pride is constituted, and in some cases, by whom. For example, the Mayor of Sagamihara is represented as the embodiment of pride, who will ‘disseminate the charm of Sagamihara City by himself’. This version of pride is not one of shared responsibilities, where everybody has a stake, but instead is top-down.

This model is closely aligned to the idea of ‘place promotion’, which is concerned with boosting civic pride from ‘the outside’ by making an area an attractive destination for tourism and business. However, in this process – as we see in Volendam in the Netherlands and Bilbao in Spain – making places attractive from the outside can provide meaning and purpose for local communities, rather than dilute it.

Place promotion is a superficial approach and unlikely to boost civic pride in isolation, but it does highlight the importance of local institutions – and their leaders – in securing investment which can transform communities and contribute to a newfound, outward looking confidence that a place is ‘on the up’.

A more collaborative approach than this is articulated in Oji’s Town Ordinance, which situates civic pride as something that ‘we must protect’. To do so it’s ‘necessary for each townsman to love and be proud of the town’, to be a ‘leader of town development’ and ‘play an active role’ to ‘foster consciousness’. This places the onus on communities to boost pride, rather than an individual, and though this is not alien to British understandings of pride given the groundswell of community-led action, the impetus that pride comes from within is more pronounced in the Japanese context.

The Uenohara City Ordinance articulates a similar vision: it is the responsibility of citizens to ‘love the region, take pride in it, and strive to pass on traditions and culture to future generations’.

The language of love is alien, but Oji and Uenohara highlight that pride requires ongoing renewal. This has been largely absent from the current debate in the UK but has tangible implications for policymakers. For example, if protecting our heritage or improving our high streets boosts pride, how long does it do so? Is there a shelf life to interventions?

The intergenerational framing in Uenohara is also revealing given interpretations of pride are different across demographic divides. Research by Public First has outlined that heritage is a priority for older Brits who are frustrated that younger Brits do not share their interest, for example. How generations ‘pass on’ civic pride, which may not be shared across intergenerational divides, requires further investigation.

What does civic pride in Japan teach us about Britain?

More work is needed to understand how pride is constituted, but relative to Japan the contours of civic pride in Britain are ill-defined.

Recent attempts have been made to codify pride locally. Durham County Council has adopted a community-led approach to boosting pride that gives communities the power to choose to invest in the amenities that matter to them. Darlington, Southampton and Herefordshire are currently mapping civic pride. Yet too often civic pride is treated as a by-product and for that reason is rarely measured.

The geography the ordinances cover also serve as a reminder that more work is needed to understand at what level – region, city, town, neighbourhood – is the most appropriate lens to understand civic pride. In the UK a number of indicators point to neighbourhood-level interventions, but given further devolution is expected, the government needs to give this consideration to determine whether it’s appropriate to incorporate tools to boost civic pride into devolution deals.

At the same time, both Britain and Japan demonstrate the need for place-based approaches that take into account demographic divides. This must go beyond simple rural-urban or town-city binaries and instead account for the specific characteristics of communities.

With Michael Gove’s return to Cabinet, the pursuit of civic pride is likely to become a priority once again. Drawing on international evidence in Japan and beyond can shed light on how civic pride is constituted differently across space and time and introduce us to new approaches to boost it at home.

By Jack Shaw, Affiliate Researcher, the Bennett Institute of Public Policy, University of Cambridge.

He is co-author of Townscapes: Pride in Place alongside Professor Michael Kenny and Owen Garling, also of the Bennett Institute.


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