Matt Leach: Levelling up isn’t simply about infrastructure – it’s about community connection too. Here’s how the Government can improve matters.

26 May

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.

Caroline Abrahams: Carers need a combination of support to fulfil their vital role – here’s how the Government can play its part

12 Mar

Caroline Abrahams is the Charity Director at Age UK.

In the week during which International Women’s Day falls I want to focus on an experience which, if not quite universal among older women, is extremely common, and that’s of being a carer. By this I mean taking on the role of looking after someone else, typically a partner or parent, on an unpaid basis. Some people are carers over a lifetime for their adult children with learning disabilities, while others, so called “sandwich carers”, find themselves caring both for younger and older relatives at the same time – an onerous responsibility indeed.

I am a carer myself, for my 92-year-old mum, who was fit and well until she had a tragic accident four years ago, robbing her of most of her mental capacity in an instant and making her dependent on others for all activities of daily living. I am now doing the “hardest yards” of caring, helping to care for her as she approaches the very end of her life. Like so many others, my caring role will come to an end when the person I am caring for dies. Then I will have to rebuild my life again.

I didn’t become a carer for my mum from a sense of duty, less still because of exhortations from some policymakers that “families must do more”, but because of a feeling of reciprocity. We have been the best of friends and my mum would have done anything to help me, whatever it took. Therefore, I wished and wish to do the same. It has been an amazing experience, one I took on willingly and with no regrets.

But I would also be the first to say that despite the tragedy that befell my mum I have been immensely fortunate to have been able to make the system work for her and for me, since I knew my way around it owing to my professional role. I have also been able to combine my caring responsibilities with continuing to work, because Age UK has been a marvellously sympathetic and flexible employer. Most people are not nearly so lucky in either respect.

What would most help older women, and men too, who care? Not one thing but a whole raft of measures. Above all a properly funded and effective system of social care would back up what unpaid carers do and make caring a less scary and lonely experience. I am thinking especially here of the legions of older people who care for a partner with dementia; something that is both extremely challenging and also often very isolating for them. Too many are left without the support they need, in the most heart-breaking of circumstances.

As Danny Kruger has observed in his recent report on the future of social care, produced with Demos, many people who need care get it from a combination of informal, unpaid support from family and sometimes friends, plus the input of formal care services. This is important because the debate about the future of social care often erroneously assumes it’s one or the other. This reality, that it’s both, reinforces the importance of formal services wanting and being able to work collaboratively with unpaid carers. From what we hear at Age UK, sometimes this happens but not always.

The same is also true of the local NHS. The vast majority of older people with care needs also have health needs, so if you are a carer for an older person you are highly likely to find yourself interacting extensively with GPs and their teams and district nurses and the like. Some health professionals are great at working with unpaid carers, but it’s not a given.

A more collaborative, properly funded approach between formal services and unpaid carers would also remove a disincentive to informal caring: that is the sadly legitimate fear that if you take on a caring responsibility you will be “dumped on” and formal services will back off, leaving you to it. We hear many examples of this at Age UK and while its wrong that it happens it is scarcely surprising, given that social services are stretched beyond endurance in trying to reach all those in need.

What I have just described is a form of “rationing” by formal services, something that manifestly happens in many other ways within social care too. Access to state-funded help with care is invariably a tortuous process, requiring resilience and staying power – often from the unpaid carer if the person needing care is unable to advocate for themselves, as was the case with my mum. Both NHS continuing healthcare and council care are underfunded and when applying for them it is not unusual to encounter barriers that may or may not seem fair or based in law – with few apparent opportunities to challenge them. This piles huge additional stress onto carers.

The fact is that the decisions about social care, or lack of them, in Whitehall eventually result in unpaid carers as well as the people for whom they are trying to do their best losing out financially as well as in terms of the quality of life they are able to lead while caring. The financial hit on unpaid carers who give up work to care is huge, often condemning older women to penny pinching in retirement. Capping very high care costs would help, but for full-time unpaid carers not enough on its own: the benefits paid for caring must go up too. They are currently below those for the unemployed – a travesty.

Then there’s flexible working. It is invariably in the best interests of a carer to stay in employment, both in terms of their quality of life and their finances. For older women like me, once caring ends you may be unable to get another job, leaving you in a real financial mess if you gave up work to care. The pandemic has seen a sea-change in attitudes towards and experiences of working from home and other forms of flexible working. I would like the Government to solidify this cultural change through amending the law to increase access to flexible working, from day one in a job.

When he entered office the Prime Minister promised to “fix social care” and he has repeated that pledge many times since. I sincerely hope we will see his promise bearing fruit later in the year and, if and when it does, that it fully factors in the need to support our carers, including our older women carers. And I believe most readers of this and other articles on ConHome would say they – we – deserve it.