Matt Leach is Chief Executive of Local Trust, a charity that delivers the Big Local programme; a long-term community-led approach to regeneration in 150 neighbourhoods across England.
When launching the legislative programme for the coming Parliament, the Prime Minister again declared his commitment to “unite and level up” the country – and announced plans to publish a Levelling Up White Paper later this year, setting out “bold new interventions to improve livelihoods and opportunities throughout the UK.”
To ensure these ideas translate into meaningful action, a new levelling up unit has been created at the heart of government, with Neil O’Brien responsible for helping drive the agenda across Whitehall. Within government departments, workstreams have already been initiated, as civil servants and advisers work up proposals to feed into both the White Paper and the autumn Spending Review.
But if levelling up is the only game in town, what exactly is it? And perhaps more importantly, what might it mean to residents of the “left behind” communities who should benefit most from it?
To date, levelling up has been interpreted as primarily about tackling regional economic divides, with initiatives such as the Towns Fund, the Future High Streets Fund and significant investment in infrastructure, such as roads and railways dominating headlines.
But recent government pronouncements have suggested a broader policy ambition aimed at “improving everyday life for communities…and ensuring everyone can succeed regardless of where they live”; enabling “people….[to be] proud of their local community, rather than feeling as though they need to leave it in order to reach their potential”; and as noted in the Queen’s speech briefing, “strengthening community and local leadership, restoring pride in place, and improving quality of life in ways that are not just about the economy”.
In many ways this reflects some of the priorities identified in Onward’s report on the nation’s social fabric. It also picks up on ideas included in Danny Kruger’s report to the Prime Minister on levelling up, which highlighted the importance of strengthening our shared sense of community, both locally and nationally.
Both reports, in different ways, respond to something very important about the mood of the country right now. Even before Covid, there was an anxiety that, in many places, the fabric of our shared social and civic life had been torn – with the loss in many places of local pubs, bingo halls, community centres and neighbourhood shops.
The places where we connect, make friends, build relationships, and cultivate a sense of neighbourliness. This phenomenon isn’t limited to our poorest places, but the impact is often most obvious in communities that have also suffered economic decline.
As human beings, we have a basic need for connection and a sense of belonging, and we gain this in large measure through institutions that reflect our collective local identities whether that be community centres, rugby clubs or pubs. This isn’t just anecdotal, there is research to back it up. In the United States, the American Enterprise Institute has demonstrated the importance of social connection and place.
Closer to home, Pro Bono Economics’ analysis suggests that the presence of community assets may be a better predictor of life satisfaction in an area than its GDP or household income. Polling by Survation indicates people feel the biggest funding deficit in “left behind” areas has been investment in provision of places where their local community can meet. Similar points can be found in a range of other recent reports, including from the Centre for Progressive Policy, the Covid Recovery Commission and the Bennett Institute at the University of Cambridge.
Indeed, it is now largely uncontested that high levels of trust and reciprocity and the bonding and bridging social capital they create underpin the success of any economy – whether national or local; one is a building block for the other. Local social and civic institutions are the fundamental engines of social capital and we know that individuals living in communities with higher levels of social capital have, on average, better outcomes across a range of indicators including employment and health and wellbeing.
Research by OCSI for Local Trust suggests the presence of places and spaces to meet in a neighbourhood, an active community life and good digital and transport connectivity contributes to improved socio-economic outcomes in the most deprived areas. People living in the most deprived areas lacking such provision have markedly worse employment and health outcomes, while overall educational attainment is lower.
But if the proposition that levelling up should be about investing in social and community as well as economic infrastructure is not controversial, what might it amount to in practice? Kruger’s report emphasised the need for investment in places to meet, alongside support for local community-based organisations to sustain them, providing resources to areas that need them most and giving communities as much power and control over decision making as possible.
And rather than being directly financed by the Treasury, his proposed “Levelling Up Communities Fund”, very similar in form to the proposal for a Community Wealth Fund championed by an Alliance of over 400 organisations, mostly from civil society, but including over 30 local and combined authorities, would be funded from dormant assets.
The legislation to release the new wave of dormant assets (from stocks, shares, bonds, insurance, and pension policies) is now before Parliament. It provides an early opportunity for government to commit funding to meeting its levelling up ambitions through support for social and community infrastructure.
Over time, dormant asset funding has the potential to generate several billion pounds to transform the social fabric of some of our most left behind places, over timeframes that extend significantly beyond Treasury timescales, at no cost to the public purse.
This may seem like a radical commitment for any government. But, as we emerge from a pandemic which has demonstrated the power of hyper-local community action, it’s an agenda that needs to be enthusiastically embraced if the this one’s levelling up ambitions are to be achieved.