Countless fringe events at the Conservative Party conference and thousands of column inches have tried to add meat to the bones of “levelling up”. We’re now starting to see a government definition emerging, as the new super-department for Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities comes into being. For us, two elements of this emerging agenda are key: that it will seek to empower communities and restore pride in place. Yet the recent Spending Review told a different story, with key opportunities for devolution of power missed.
Successive governments have talked a good game when it comes to devolving power and resources to a local level. But, to date, the action hasn’t matched the rhetoric, and it’s left the public cynical about government promises. Less than a quarter of the public believe that levelling up will positively impact their areas, according to a new report from Power to Change and The Cares Family – Building our social infrastructure: Why levelling up means creating a more socially connected Britain.
When government regeneration initiatives have come and gone, and large swathes of the country remain relatively unchanged – despite millions of pounds of investment – it’s unsurprising that older voters are the most sceptical of the levelling-up agenda. Over-55s are the least likely to believe that levelling up will benefit their community. Ministers may find this alarming, given the central role older voters played in securing the government’s success at the most recent general election.
For levelling up to truly work, and to instil public confidence in the policy, we need to give communities the investment they need, as well as greater say in how funding is spent in their area. No one understands a community better than those who live there. Putting power back into the hands of local communities ensures that funds have sustainable, long-lasting impact. Indeed, research shows that the most successful regeneration projects in recent years have put communities in the driving seat. And the public agrees, with 63% saying that levelling up should involve giving local people more power over the places where they live.
The recently announced Community Renewal Fund provides a cautionary tale. Its intention is to help local areas prepare for the launch of the Shared Prosperity Fund which will replace EU structural funding in 2022, through programmes investing in skills, community, local business, and supporting people into employment. But the tight timeframes and complex, bureaucratic process attached to the fund proved a huge barrier for lots of community organisations.
The government can now signal its intent to learn from this process through the forthcoming levelling up white paper. As officials and ministers work out the detail of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, they should consider a simpler, more effective approach which empowers community-power partnerships to hold at least a quarter of the fund. This will enable those who really understand what needs to happen to create change locally, creating employment opportunities, boosting social connection, and improving wellbeing amongst local people.
If we really want to level up then we must invest in our communities’ social infrastructure. We saw the beginnings of this at the Spending Review, with investment in parks, family hubs and youth centres. But the government should build on these measures by proactively supporting the growth of new community businesses and organisations where people can meet, mix and form the meaningful connections which underpin feelings of wellbeing, security and shared belonging. That’s why we’ve called on ministers to create a new national commission to spur on the development of 21st century connecting institutions. Of those stating a preference, when responding to polling, three quarters believe that investing in our social infrastructure should be as much of a priority for the government as investing in physical, or hard, infrastructure.
Ultimately, though, this can’t simply be about processes run and decisions made in Westminster and Whitehall. If levelling up is to succeed, the government should trust people – those who know and love the places where they live – with the power they need to shape a better future. They should also seek to bring coherence to a dizzying array of centrally controlled competitive funding pots, so that they make sense for people on the ground, and ensure communities have the rights and resources they need to unleash their area’s potential. If they don’t, the agenda is at risk of failure. Ministers must put local relationships and local communities at the centre of decision-making – capitalising on the opportunity before them to ensure that levelling up has the power of social connection at its core.
For more information on how the government can create a more socially-connected Britain, Power to Change and The Cares Family’s report can be read here.
Vidhya Alakeson is chief executive officer of community business advocacy group Power to Change; Alex Smith is founder and chief executive officer of The Cares Family, which works to build stronger communities