‘Soft spaces’ and ‘hard borders’? Reflections on Brexit for places and planning

The Brexit debate across the British Isles is not only a political war of words, it is a political battle over borders, not just trade borders, but ideological borders. What is absent in febrile debates on the physical and political components of the border is the relationship between people and place. While macro-economic challenges of Brexit are important, so too is the wellbeing of local people living and working along the border, writes Ulster University’s Gavan Rafferty.

In pondering how the people-place relationship has shaped Brexit – and continues to shape the outworking of Brexit – reading led me to David Goodhart’s book, ‘The Road to Somewhere: The New Tribes Shaping British Politics’. Goodhart argues that value divergence is occurring in western societies, emerging from decades of social, educational and political change, which has created people who now see the world from ‘Anywhere’ and those who see it from ‘Somewhere’. This classification demonstrates a new way to understanding the relationship between people and place. ‘Somewhere’ places consist of people that are rooted to a particular local geography, who tend to be myopic, to have a stronger (ascribed) sense of national identity, and to be more socially conservative. Whereas, ‘Anywherers’ tend to be socially liberal, university educated, highly mobile, with a global outlook. This suggests ‘Anywherers’ put greater emphasis on individualism before traditional notions of community – and are arguably less place-bound. For me, this conceptualisation raises questions about how we make sense of ‘community’ and ‘place’ in a post-Brexit world.

Examining the referendum results data reveals striking spatial variation of voting preferences across the UK and illustrates a strong relationship between people and place. In England, most ‘remainers’ – likely ‘Anywherers’ – were located in larger multicultural cities, for example, London and Manchester, while the concentration of leave voters – largely ‘Somewherers’ – tended to be located in the post-industrial north-eastern settlements with larger working class populations. In short, place matters. Although Goodhart’s ‘Anywherers’ appear less place-bound, for those progressive individuals to feel they can flourish, and where they can experience positive social and economic wellbeing, it is the quality of place that attracts these individuals to live, work and belong there. For that reason, one can argue that place is just as important to ‘Anywherers’, too.

While Goodhart’s classification may not neatly apply to Northern Ireland, ties between people and place are particularly evident here. Brexit voting patterns broadly align with our distinctive identity politics. The western and southern parliamentary constituencies – predominantly Catholic/nationalist – had the highest percentages of remain (for example, 78 per cent in Foyle, Derry), while the north-eastern constituencies – predominantly Protestant/unionist – voted in favour to leave (62 per cent in North Antrim). Arguably, one can surmise that ‘place’—its identity, people’s attachment to it and what it has to offer those living there—was important in influencing how people voted in the Brexit referendum.

The post-referendum debates around a hard Brexit with a soft border presents a real conundrum demanding ever greater creativity. In many ways, the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) is the apex of constitutional and political creativity that offers a negotiated future between diametrically opposed positions on national identity, sovereignty and territory. Therefore, the Good Friday Agreement is our best chance of sustaining peace and prosperity in this part of the British Isles, if not the ‘only game in town’. In ‘Brexit and Ireland’, Tony Connelly argues that Brexit exposes the vulnerabilities of Northern Ireland, given its small population and an economy historically skewed in favour of the public sector. Connelly underscores the disruptive potential of Brexit on the stability of peace, acknowledging how the GFA ‘softened’ the land border encouraging the flow of people, goods, services, ideas, culture and students back and forth.

While Brexit represents uncertainty, we must take comfort in the fact that local authorities here have a broader remit now to co-design and co-deliver public services, through community planning powers, and to manage developments and land use change in places, through spatial planning functions. The significance of these functions are important. They are not static or passive, but exhibit a dynamic and changing morphology with respect to their individual operation and their relationship with one another. Specifically, Northern Ireland is the first jurisdiction in the UK to articulate a statutory link between community plans and local development plans, both aiming to further sustainable development and enhance social, economic and environmental wellbeing.

Both community planning and spatial planning have to deal with, and manage, change in council districts, adopting place-based thinking and approaches to orientate service delivery and spatial development activities towards improving wellbeing outcomes. Arguably, community planning is more concerned with place-shaping, by coordinating what and where services will be delivered, while spatial planning is concerned with place-making, by bringing together and integrating policies that influence spatial and land use changes. These council functions use formal ‘hard spaces’ that are statutorily defined in their separate legislative acts to direct operations. However, what is increasingly becoming apparent in planning systems across Europe is the growth of ‘soft spaces’, operating outside, or parallel to, formal institutional – or ‘hard’ bureaucratic – procedures. The emergence of ‘soft spaces’ represents evidence of moving beyond the rigidities associated with established practices of working to existing political or governmental boundaries. These new arenas offer constructive platforms within which to discuss ‘fuzzy’ administrative boundaries, or territorial borders, and try to bring together stakeholders to explore the ‘real’ issues relevant to local functional geographies.

“While Brexit represents uncertainty, we must take comfort in the fact that local authorities here have a broader remit now to co-design and co-deliver public services, through community planning powers, and to manage developments and land use change in places, through spatial planning functions.”

Examples of ‘soft spaces’ straddling the Irish border could be existing cross-border networks, such as the North West Regional Cross Border Group, Irish Central Border Area Network (ICBAN), and the East Border Region, which involve local authorities with administrative boundaries along the Irish border. An output from working in ‘soft spaces’ could be the ‘Framework for Cooperation: Spatial Strategies of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland’. Published in 2013 by the (then) Department of Regional Development (Northern Ireland) and the (then) Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Republic of Ireland) it highlights the operational realities of facilitating cross-border planning and governance and asserts a joint commitment to securing cooperative working to avoid “back to back” planning.

Such efforts represent a strong basis on which to further explore how ‘soft spaces’ offer innovative ways to develop creative and integrative arenas that nurture cross-border solutions. We must remember, it is in place, ‘the local’, where people will experience either positive or negative social, economic and environmental wellbeing. I would argue more consideration is needed about how the instruments of planning, across the island of Ireland, including associated ‘soft spaces’, can be positively reworked to response to Brexit challenges, ultimately for safeguarding the unique people-place relationships in this part of the British Isles.

Dr Gavan Rafferty, BA (Hons.), MSc, PhD, Pg Cert HEP, FHEA, MRTPI 
Lecturer in Spatial Planning and Development
Belfast School of Architecture and the Built Environment 
Ulster University

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