People in one of the poorest parts of the UK voted for Brexit despite being given billions of pounds of EU cash because they don't feel the funding improved their lives, according to a new report.
Projects such as roads and high speed broadband didn't capture the attention of communities in Cornwall, University of Exeter researchers have found. This meant they didn't "engage intellectually or emotionally" with the European Union.
Cornwall is one of the most deprived regions in the UK and has received the highest levels of support from European Union Structural Funding programmes. However a majority of people in the county voted to leave the EU.
The report says the focus on the funding being used to improve statistical measures of economic development means how communities feel about their area and lives can be overlooked. It recommends future projects funded for the same purpose should give residents a greater role in decision-making and allocate more money to projects which people can directly control such as education, training and skills.
Dr Joanie Willett, a member of the Penryn-based research team, said:
"We found people felt very vulnerable and fearful about the future and change. But they felt as if many of the issues that concerned them did not fall under the remit of either the European Regional Development Fund or the European Social Fund.
"They felt the EU had made decisions which were ineffective or irrelevant to them. They said they hadn't been able to influence these decisions and this overshadowed the good and important work that had been done. This meant they developed Eurosceptic views."
Data suggests EU Structural Funds have had a very positive effect on some parts of the Cornish economy, but Cornwall is still one of the poorest parts of the UK, with incomes falling well below UK averages.
The 2017 Conservative Manifesto said that "we will use the structural fund money that comes back to the UK following Brexit to create a United Kingdom Shared Prosperity Fund, specifically designed to reduce inequalities between communities across our four nations."
Academics conducted a series of focus groups, one-to-one interviews, and an anonymous survey between January and April 2017 which had 820 responses – 287 from leave voters. People were asked to discuss why they voted to leave the EU, if Structural Funding may have impacted upon their decision, the extent to which leaving may impact Cornwall and other areas; and whether regional identity may have affected their decision.
Those involved in the research told academics what they wanted was genuinely affordable housing and access to adequate health care and these needs were being ignored. They hadn't appreciated this was not in the remit of the EU or Structural Funding, so this fed a perception that the EU was remote and out of touch.
Dr Garry Tregidga, a member of the research team, said:
"People need to feel involved in major decisions about their region and that policies are made openly. They must be able to feel investment has a direct impact on their lives."
The academics also recommends different regions should be able to make decisions about what counts as infrastructure in line with local specificities, and there should be an Erasmus-type scheme for councils to visit and share best practice with counterparts in other EU member states.
Dr Rebecca Tidy, a member of the research team, said:
"The key is not better headlines or communication about the benefits of EU funding in Cornwall. There is a need for people to engage emotionally and intellectually with projects, to feel more involved with decision-making and for them to have some personal access to funding."
The report, How Do We Make Sure that Economic Development Benefits All? Lessons from Brexit for Structural Funds Programmes, is available at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2399654419825654