Budget 2020: How to ‘level up’ for real – put communities in charge

Power to Change Chief Executive Vidhya Alakeson shares her views on how Government can carve the budget to give real power to communities. A shorter version of this piece was published on Unherd.com

Levelling up. That’s what this week’s Budget is supposed to be about. But what do those two little words really mean?

Far too often it seems to stand for big, shiny infrastructure projects – bridges across the sea, super-fast broadband everywhere, and so on. Some of this sort of thing is necessary, but not nearly enough to change the fortunes of poorer parts of our towns and cities and the people who live there.

For that, we need to get down to the neighbourhood level and give local people in those places real control over what happens. Done this way, investment can bring about big change. The story of Stretford Public Hall in Greater Manchester shows what’s possible. Built for the community by John Rylands in 1878, it was used extensively by the community for over 100 years. But by 2010 it had closed and was falling into disrepair. Much loved by local people, they came together in 2015 to take it over and have painstakingly restored it to be the thriving community hub it was always supposed to be.

Restored, Stretford Public Hall has returned pride to its community, provides jobs and connections for local people and has transformed the reputation of the area. Others are now starting up businesses around it. Pubs and restaurants have opened where there were previously none. And the Hall itself will soon generate 90% of its income from business activity such as letting work space and artists’ studios and hiring out its ballroom for events and weddings. It’s a self-financing engine of local change.

Similar stories could be told about Radcliffe Market Hall down the road in Bury, about Homebaked community bakery in Anfield or the Carlile Institute in Meltham outside Huddersfield. Each provides a compelling example of how power in the hands of local people can start to turn around disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

If it means anything, ‘levelling up’ has to be about changing the current balance of power and prosperity in the country. It must involve supporting the people and places which are not yet a part of our story of success so they can prosper too – and on their own terms. But this requires a real shift in trust. We have to get much better at trusting the people who know most about what their local area needs.

On this, many in the Government appear to agree. But that’s the problem with language in politics. Words are almost everything, and yet they’re open to a whole range of interpretations. It’ll be through the actions announced in next week’s Budget, not the rhetoric, that we find out what the Government really means when it talks of ‘levelling up’ – and whether they really trust communities to get on with it themselves.

So here are the top five things I would want to see in the Budget to know that we’re levelling up for real. If the Chancellor announces some or all of these, then we know the Government is serious.

 

  1. Let local people rebuild their own places

It matters who owns things. When high street properties are owned by distant landlords with no long-term stake in the vitality of the area, places can decline quickly. The Government seemed to recognise this when it announced a £150m Community Ownership Fund in its manifesto last year. But it’s not clear what assets this will be used for and how much influence local people will have in deciding what they should own. I want to hear the Chancellor not only announce this Fund but set out clearly that it should be up to communities what it’s used for. And local people should have much stronger legal rights to buy local assets. We need a Community Right to Buy that gives local people time and space to raise the money to buy important local buildings and the ability, where necessary, to force negligent owners to sell their assets.

 

  1. Give communities real influence over local decisions

There are lots of different pots of money floating around which are supposed to boost local economies in areas which are struggling. But despite the rhetoric of devolution and local empowerment, these funds tend to reveal Whitehall’s tendency to want to control how money is spent.

High streets are a good example. A lucky 100 places will get a share of the Future High Streets Fund based on plans to boost their town centres and high streets. The money is badly needed, of course. But the terms of engagement mean councils are forced to put in hasty plans that meet centrally set standards, without really talking to the community. And then they have to spend it fast – again, without engaging with the people who really know what would make a difference. We know from our work with community businesses all over the country that the most successful high streets are those where the local community has real influence and control over important decisions. So let’s learn from that and change the rules of engagement so councils have to demonstrate genuine community influence over their plans.

 

  1. Put communities in charge of regeneration funding

The Government is already investing £3.6bn in regeneration through the Towns Fund. Next April, the long-promised Shared Prosperity Fund will kick in to replace the cash we used to get from the EU to ‘level up’ (although they don’t call it that). Some are calling for a tripling in the size of the fund, to £15bn a year. That kind of increase would make a big difference. But it’s not just how many billions are available but who decides how it is spent. The Budget should commit to handing over a quarter of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund and future regeneration funding to neighbourhood-level partnerships led by community organisations. If local people have the power to choose their own path, the money will go on the things that really matter. Things like Stretford Public Hall – the places where local people meet and where the idea of society comes alive – provide the foundations for long-term economic success.

 

  1. Reinvest in the Community Housing Fund for five years

Community-led housing gives neighbourhood organisations the power to tackle the housing crisis themselves. By owning the housing for the long term, communities can decide how much rents will rise or can cap capital gains. Owning housing also gives them wider economic power. They can borrow against it and use surplus rents to address other local needs.

In 2018, the government introduced the Community Housing Fund but only provided groups two years of guaranteed investment. As things stand, there is no further funding for groups as of the end of March. For small community-led housing groups, this kind of uncertainty makes it impossible to invest or plan ahead. Even the mainstream housing industry would struggle in those circumstances. The Budget should renew the Community Housing Fund for another five years to make sure that local people can actually build the 23,000 homes currently thought to be in the pipeline.

 

  1. Invest dormant accounts into community shares

In the last three years alone, 45 communities have invested over £8m in community shares to bring their local pubs into community ownership. Community shares provide long-term finance for community businesses which helps them to grow.

The government should commit £10m of dormant accounts to growing the community shares market, investing in an organisation to manage the market long-term and using some of the £10m to kick-start community share raises. As we do at Power to Change, dormant accounts could match the first £100,000 of a share raise to incentivise direct investment from local people, generating valuable new money for locally rooted, community-led businesses.

All this is easier said than done, of course. Let’s see whether the Government’s talk of levelling up is just that ­– talk – or whether there’s real commitment behind it.