Levelling up white paper must turbo charge a new era of genuine devolution to revive deprived areas
The long-awaited levelling up white paper is just around the corner.
While the detailed policy prescriptions remain shrouded in mystery, the general thrust is clear. Levelling up is about reducing economic disparities, creating more equal access to opportunity and restoring local pride.
This shouldn’t just be about tackling the north-south divide or targeting investment in so-called Red Wall areas. Of course that’s important, but often there are stark economic and social disparities within regions and even within local council boundaries. There are pockets of deprivation hiding in plain sight in parts of the country that are seen as being affluent and well-to-do: cathedral cities, coastal communities and the countryside.
Breckland, my own council area, has places of quintessential rural beauty and village life. But the Abbey Estate in Thetford falls within the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods nationally and Breckland ranks 306 of local authorities nationally for social mobility. Levelling up must help places like this too.
This is where district and borough councils come in. All too often districts and town centres across England visibly bear the scars of long-term economic decline and underinvestment. And, with that, comes the erosion of local pride and aspiration. Our high streets are cherished but careworn. This was true before we’d even heard of Covid. But small businesses in our towns and high streets have borne the brunt of the pandemic; forced to close for many months and, when reopened, operating at reduced capacity. This has been an unprecedently tough time for the businesses we hold dear.
We need to move away from bureaucratic bidding processes and make it a genuinely devolved pot of money with long-term funding certainty
But there are good reasons to be optimistic. District Councils Network (DCN) councils stepped up heroically during the height of the pandemic to support local businesses. We rapidly delivered around nine billion pounds of business support grants to tens of thousands of businesses across England. This was the lifeline that allowed them to weather the storm. And many small businesses have indeed survived. We can now focus on driving a long-term recovery and regenerating our towns to create places that will attract people to live in, work in and visit. Building on the traditions and history of our towns, but reimagining them for the 21st century.
District and borough councils already have ambitious plans to invest more than £1.3 billion to regenerate our town centres and high streets. The funds we’ve received from central government will be supplemented by private investment. You’ll see this across the country.
Stevenage, one of the first new towns, is investing almost £40m to revive its iconic town centre. Craven District Council is investing almost £7m in Skipton to create a cultural hub and Heritage Action Zone to boost the night-time economy and attract younger people to the town. In Eastbourne, the council is delivering £20 million investment to create a vibrant and pedestrianised cultural district with urban art and al fresco dining, powered with green energy.
This is just a flavour of the great things DCN councils can do to revive deprived areas, create thriving centres for enterprise, and restore hope. If the government wants levelling up to succeed, our councils are indispensable. That’s because we have unparallel knowledge of 100 per cent of the residents and businesses in our areas. We have strong local convening power. And we make the key local planning decisions that allow new homes, businesses and infrastructure to be created.
So, what do we want from the white paper? Of course, investment is important. The UK Shared Prosperity Fund should give another boost to left behind areas. But we need to move away from bureaucratic bidding processes and make it a genuinely devolved pot of money with long-term funding certainty. Government should set clear outcomes and then leave local government to design the right projects to deliver those outcomes in their local areas. This isn’t the time for micromanagement from Whitehall.
This is about more than money. With more freedoms and flexibilities for councils and more incentives for local businesses, we can be the engine for recovery. We’d like the powers to create regeneration zones for town centres with tax incentives for small businesses and the proceeds of growth reinvested locally. We’d like the ability to deal with the longstanding scourge of retail and commercial units left empty for months and years. And we’d like DCN councils to be at the heart of county deals, empowered to work as equal partners with county and unitary councils to improve economic, social and health outcomes for all our residents – through regeneration and growth, skills, climate change action and earlier interventions to tackle the root causes of poor health.
DCN councils already do a remarkable job to help their local communities. However, with the right tools, we could go even further. The white paper must be used to turbo charge a new era of genuine devolution. With the right backing, the flexibility and the powers to deliver change, we can help drive the national recovery at a hyper-local level, and make the country fit for the future.
Cllr Sam Chapman-Allen is chair of the District Councils Network, representing 183 district councils in England.
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