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09/01/2018

Can we make sense of Brexit by understanding place?

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Post-EU referendum analysis pitched the 'Somewheres' against the 'Anywheres'. But, points out Gavan Rafferty, it's a rather more complex picture than that

Brexit generates more questions than answers. I have been pondering the people-place relationship of Brexit. After devouring a wealth of ‘hot off the press’ literature, I came to David Goodhart’s book, The Road to Somewhere: The New Tribes Shaping British Politics.

Goodhart presents fresh social classifications based on diverging values among people, their sense of identity and attachment to place, shaped by decades of social, educational and political change.

He contends that this has produced ‘Somewhere’ and ‘Anywhere’ places. ‘Somewherers’ are arguably place-bound, rooted to specific places, and tend to be myopic and marginalised, to have a stronger sense of national identity, and to be more socially conservative.

"Place is important to all of us, but especially for planning professionals who mediate competing interests"

‘Anywherers’ tend to be socially liberal, university educated, highly mobile, with a global outlook. This suggests that ‘Anywherers’ put greater emphasis on individualism before traditional notions of community – and are arguably less place-bound.

This all begs the question of whether our understanding of ‘place’ has changed, or is changing. Referendum data from the British Office of National Statistics (2016), reveals striking spatial variation of voting preferences across the UK.

In England, most ‘remainers’ – likely ‘Anywherers’ – were in larger multicultural cities such as London and Manchester. ‘Leave’ voters – largely ‘Somewherers’ – tended to be in the post-industrial North-East settlements with larger working-class populations. Goodhart’s delineation offers one way to appreciate how the relationship between people and place has shaped voting patterns in England. Simply, place matters! 

At a cursory glance, Goodhart infers that place is less influential for ‘Anywherers’. But many ‘Anywherers’ may take issue with this logic. Arguably, for progressive people to feel they can flourish, where they can experience positive social and economic well-being, and where they can celebrate cosmopolitanism, it is the quality of place that attracts these people to live, work and socialise there. So place is vital to ‘Anywherers’, too. 

Therefore, place is important to all of us, but especially for planning professionals who mediate competing interests to create welcoming and flourishing places. While Goodhart offers a thought-provoking exposition of tribal and spatial divisions that capture the relationship between solidarity and diversity in 21st century society, it presents challenges for politicians and spatial planners. 

They must reflect on how better to approach place-making to rebalance the ‘Somewhere’ and ‘Anywhere’ divergence. 

Gavan Rafferty is a lecturer in spatial planning at the Ulster University

Main image | iStock

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