'Left-behind’ places: Beyond graphs and numbers

Anna Zubko, Journalist, Youth4Regions programme alumna

During EU Regions Week, the intermediate results of the project on ‘left-behind’ places were presented by members of the ‘Beyond “left-behind” places’ project.

Every small town or remote village is important for development, just as every workshop or presentation is important for the European Week of Cities and Regions. The team behind the project ‘Beyond “left-behind” places’ combined these two aspects in one day. On 11 October, the scientists Tim Leibert, Sanne Velthuis, Nora Nafaa and Danny Mackinnon presented findings from a cross-national research project on ‘left-behind’ places in France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

About the project
I will not dwell on clarification, but, in short, these are peripheral or rural areas that experience demographic and socioeconomic stagnation or decline. ‘Beyond “left-behind” places’ is a project that, since 2021, has investigated such places. Its goal is to determine the main factors that make areas lose popularity, how this changes cities and people in them, and how the situation can be helped.

Development trajectories
First, after presentations by Danny Mackinnon, Sanne Velthuis traced and compared the trajectories of the regions’ development and life from 1987 to 2017 in the EU-15. The places were divided into seven groups based on these trajectories.

There are regions that have always had lower-than-average indicators: some lost their positions only after 2007–2008, some lost them in the mid-1980s, and some regions, despite the uneven trajectory, always remained above average indicators in the country.

But regions are not just graphs, and to understand the problem you need to know who is leaving and coming. As Tim Leibert said, in these regions ‘brain drain’ often occurs. During the course of the research, they reached an unexpected result. These places may be abandoned economically or politically, but not populationally. 

‘Left-behind’ places, which in this case are better called ‘lagging-behind’ places, become attractive to internal migrants looking for life in more accessible places. Internal migration was also affected by the pandemic, as some people preferred to move to a quieter and less crowded place. If we add external migrants, the picture changes a little, but they go to large centres as well as to ‘lagging-behind’ places.

‘Despite what might be expected, economically lagging regions have higher average rates of net migration than more economically “successful” returns’, says Tim Leibert.

The locals
‘Left-behind’ places still function and some people do not want to leave them. Nora Nafaa told several stories from the towns of Bishop Auckland, Kisel, La Grand-Combe, Herne, Roanne and Walsall. There are different reasons that residents do not want to leave the less-developed regions: some like the cheap cost of living, some have family and friends there, and some do not leave owing to nostalgia.

Of course, these factors cannot keep everyone in the cities. Regardless of feelings, people struggle economically and do not have enough support from the community or local authorities.
The audience did not hesitate to ask questions, and at the end I also managed to ask Tim Leibert and Sanne Velthuis about their thoughts.
Anna Zubko: How much more research does the team behind ‘Beyond “left-behind” places’ plan to do? 

‘The project ends next year. We have finalised data collection and are currently working on several publications.’

What global challenges, such as climate change, affect migration processes from ‘left-behind’ regions?

‘Climate change seems not to play a role at the moment, but the migration of refugees is very important in many “left-behind” places at the moment.’

Do you have any examples of success of ‘left-behind’ places from your studies?

‘Difficult to answer, as parts of the population will not profit from regional and economic development initiatives. Some “left-behind” places are in the middle of an economic recovery, including a certain re-industrialisation (e.g. in rural east Germany), but the discontent about the socioeconomic situation is still there, and many inhabitants are generally satisfied with their private lives and future perspectives but pessimistic about the future of their home region.’

Also, when I asked Tim if they have a strategy for the development of such regions, he replied that they are scientists, not politicians. They research, talk to politicians and highlight what works for further development.

But there definitely has to be a stable government in the region that will spread the idea that the region is not doomed, parties united by one idea and someone who will attract financial grants from programmes for ‘left-behind’ places to the area.

Sanne Velthuis also added that we should not forget to make investments in improving everyday life, not only large individual projects. 
It is a balancing act and, of course, there are still topics and questions that need to be investigated in the future.

This article appears in Thriving Regions Stronger Together

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