Re-imagining Pride-in-Place at the Mezzolevel

Re-imagining Pride-in-Place at the Mezzolevel: Although Labour Admit Boris Talked a “Good Game” on Levelling Up, the Tories Haven’t Delivered. What Next?

Position paper by The Cultural Engine Research Group – Tony Sampson, UoE, Giles Tofield, CE CiC & Andrew Branch, UEL


We make the case that the next UK government should strategically retain parts of the Levelling Up agenda, particularly the concept of pride-in-place. However, we propose new ways of understanding pride as part of a radical recalibration of community development strategy.

With an election on the imminent horizon, there is interest in what a new government might do about regional inequality. Indeed, Labour have recently argued that although Boris Johnson talked a “good game” on Levelling up, the Tory policy has not delivered.


With an election on the horizon, Labour’s response to Boris Johnson’s post-Brexit commitment to ‘levelling-up’ has been predictably dismissive, although Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner did at least acknowledge that Johnson ‘talked a good game’.

As a community interest research group addressing regional inequalities, we are also underwhelmed by the gap between government rhetoric and regional reality. However, although the notion of pride-in-place referenced as a measure of levelling up success in the White Paper has many limitations, it also has much potential. We therefore argue in this position paper that the best way to retain these valuable aspects of the policy is by reimagining how people emotionally invest in the places they live in. We propose a radical recalibration of community development strategies that map these emotional affinities so that need determines resources rather than resources presupposing need.

Two years ago, the ‘Levelling Up the United Kingdom’ White Paper was pitched by PM Johnson as a grand vision supposed to bridge historically entrenched geographical divides. The reality of its implementation has, nevertheless, proven to be a far cry from the transformative impact promised. A key part of the Tory’s remedy for enduring socioeconomic inequalities – the Levelling Up Fund – has so far amounted to little. The fund was a relatively small, thinly spread, competitive pot, suggesting it was partially a political strategy.

As Thomas Pope from the Institute for Government put it, the fund was neither “large enough nor targeted enough” to have any sustainable impact on regional inequalities. Indeed, as UK politicians prepare for the election, a familiar question arises – will Levelling Up suffer the same fate as other big policy ideas of this kind. Like David Cameron’s Big Society concept, will it be consigned to the oblivion of ill-conceived initiatives and empty slogans?

Yet, despite the prevailing cynicism surrounding the possible demise of Levelling Up, the term Pride-in-Place does seem to resonate with a range of stakeholders, including local government and strategic funders. North Essex Economic Board, for example, are seeking to develop a ‘North Essex Pride in Place Evidence Base’.

In the White Paper, Pride-in-Place is presented as a quantitative measurement of community ‘satisfaction’ and ‘engagement’ and argues ‘that communities in left-behind places…. suffer from a loss or erosion of their identity, traditions, and local pride as a result of long-term decline in their economic prospects’.

We look at pride in place differently by drawing on a well-established research interest in ‘emotional geographies’. We contend that engagements with place, occasionally manifesting as something like pride, can significantly influence community experience. Understanding pride in place in this way allows a more nuanced capture of emotional investment beyond those generated by established ‘wellbeing’ data metrics. It also enables a move beyond the ‘left behind’ / ‘steaming ahead’ rhetoric in the White Paper, which reduces regional inequalities to a solely financial distribution problem. By carefully studying community encounters with local nature, urban environments, culture, and heritage, for example, policymakers could potentially develop a more granulated qualitative understanding of how people feel about the places in which they live.

Crucially, we also argue that policymakers must transcend this prevalent neoliberal logic that reduces pride-in-place (and other emotions) to a crude determinant of economic success or failure. It has never been the case that economically deprived places are necessarily defined by a deficit in pride compared to more affluent areas (See Bennett Institute).

The alternative approach we take could underpin the development of targeted local strategies, based on emotional “lived experiences” of place that tackle some aspects of these deeply rooted geographical disparities. This in turn could inform national strategy and place-related investment.

Empowering the ‘Mezzolevel’

Given that local authorities have become more remote from local communities, we challenge Whitehall’s presumption that bigger is always better.  Instead, we contend there is an enhanced role for anchor institutions like universities and community interest companies to better support local charities, town/parish councils, resident groups, heritage societies etc. We call this the mezzolevel which provides an effective bridge between local communities (microlevel) and wider District, County, Regional and National contexts (macrolevel). This approach necessitates new policy-supporting methodologies developed at the mezzolevel that prioritise qualitative “measures” over quantitative tools. These methods will need to capture both individual and collective emotional experiences of place, including political empowerment/disempowerment, community cohesion/disintegration, and inclusivity/exclusivity. The objective is to identify and assess the differentiated intrinsic values that these experiences bring to our comprehension of place.

We are starting to experiment with participatory workshops, where various microlevel groups engage in activities using visual and textual methods aimed at capturing their emotional connections to local spaces like heritage sites or recreational areas. Our practice as a research group has therefore provided insights into the complex interplay between institutions and actors operating between the micro, mezzo, and macrolevels. Our contention is that analysis of this interplay should inform decision-making at the mezzo and up to the macrolevel, ensuring that political strategy remains responsive to the evolving needs and aspirations of local communities, often alluded to in government rhetoric but hitherto disempowered in having their voices heard.

Image from Bender, A.K., Koegler, E., Johnson, S.D., Murugan, V. and Wamser-Nanney, R., 2021. Guns and intimate partner violence among adolescents: A scoping review. Journal of Family Violence, 36, pp.605-617.


  1. Labour’s criticism of Boris Johnson’s ‘levelling-up’ rhetoric lacks substance.
  2. We advocate for reimagining pride-in-place as a measure of success in addressing regional inequalities.
  3. Despite the government’s promises, the implementation of the Levelling Up Fund falls short, leading to doubts about its efficacy similar to past failed policy initiatives.
  4. The concept of pride-in-place gains traction among stakeholders, offering a more nuanced understanding of community engagement beyond traditional metrics.
  5. A shift towards ’emotional geographies’ allows for a deeper exploration of community attachment to local spaces, challenging neoliberal assumptions about the relationship between economic success and emotional investment.
  6. We propose empowering the ‘mezzolevel’ to bridge the gap between local communities (micro) and higher levels of governance (macro).
  7. Through paricipatory workshops and other qualitative methodologies, we seek to amplify the voices and aspirations of local communities in decision-making processes.
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