Local communities must be front and centre of a reformed approach to leveling up
It has been an especially difficult few years for England’s most ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods.
These areas – already disadvantaged by high levels of deprivation and low levels of investment and resources – have been disproportionately hit in recent times: first by Covid, and now because of the spiralling cost of living.
The government’s aim to level up and tackle regional inequalities through a series of funding schemes to develop local infrastructure, boost community ownership of local assets, promote town centre regeneration and drive investment in deprived communities is of course welcome. The problem – according to a new report published in October by a cross-party group of MPs and Peers that we co-chair – is that many of the areas that need it most are not feeling the benefits of this policy.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group for ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods that I co-chair alongside Diana Johnson was established to increase opportunities and improve the quality of life for people living in these areas. 225 such neighbourhoods in England are classed as ‘left behind’, being ranked in the 10% most deprived localities. Found across the north and Midlands, as well as coastal areas in the south east, they are home to around 2.4 million people.
We spent over a year talking to the people that levelling up is designed to help, hearing evidence from those living in some of the most challenged areas of the country. Whether levelling up is making a difference has been the subject of much debate and conjecture. We wanted to find out the reality, and our report, A Neighbourhood Strategy for National Renewal, is the first in-depth inquiry to actually explore how the government’s policy approach is working on the ground.
Despite the best intentions, we found that over many years government programmes have not recognised the scale of the challenges; there has been insufficient collaboration with local people who know best what would benefit their community; and election cycles and changing political priorities have prevented long-term investment in the neighbourhoods most in need.
Funding is often directed by the centre – Westminster and Whitehall – towards traditional physical infrastructure and economic development projects that may not reach people living in ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods. Because these neighbourhoods are usually located on the periphery of towns and cities, they do not always benefit from the ‘ripple effect’ of such projects. Moreover, their critical lack of social infrastructure – the community spaces and networks that help bring people together to overcome shared challenges – is left unaddressed.
The funding model for levelling up that is based on government spending rounds is also too short-term, bureaucratic and inflexible. It emphasises one-off capital investment while neglecting the revenue funding that is critical for community development. This can hinder the development of locally-driven solutions to challenges. In order to move away from this culture of control by the centre, local people should be empowered to act, and provided with the support, resources and investment they need over the long term to make a difference to the priorities that matter most to them., and provided with the support, resources and investment they need to make a difference to the priorities that matter most to them.
This over-centralisation – and accompanying weakness of community and local government voices and perspectives – was explicitly recognised as one of the causes of place-based inequalities in the government’s Levelling Up White Paper. It referenced the principle of subsidiarity: the notion that the closer you are to the people your decisions are going to affect, the more likely it is that they will serve those interests. Yet this is not reflected in current policy.
Our report makes a number of recommendations to address these weaknesses.
These include, for example, momentum in establishing a ‘Community Wealth Fund’ which would provide long term funding over 10-15 years, enabling residents to spend money on their own terms on the projects they judge to be most important to them. The government has committed to using unclaimed money from dormant bank and building society accounts to create the new Fund; we want to see fast progress made on its implementation, and most importantly, ensure that it is targeted at those ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods that need it most.
To enhance local involvement, the government should commit to ‘double devolution’ – in other words, devolution below the level of combined and local authorities, giving greater decision-making powers and resources to the residents of ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods.
In addition, the introduction of an enhanced Community Right to Buy – strengthening the existing community right to bid – would help communities save local assets like pubs, clubs and green spaces and support the provision of new local amenities and facilities, alongside new initiatives to support community development work and capacity building.
Levelling up is an issue that goes beyond party stripes. Governments of all political persuasions have struggled to make a tangible difference in the most ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods. We know how powerful community-led change can be in turning around a neighbourhood’s fortunes and have heard first hand the amazing work that local residents are doing in the most challenging of circumstances. If governments really want to level up, their policy approach needs to put local communities front and centre.
Paul Howell is the Conservative MP for Sedgefield and co-chair of the APPG for ‘Left Behind’ Neighbourhoods
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