Why the Chancellor needs to put his trust in our communities

Vidhya Alakeson, Chief Executive Officer, Power to Change

As the Chancellor prepares for yet another major fiscal event this year, in the form of Wednesday’s Spending Review, we’ll be looking for signs that government is serious about its ‘levelling up’ agenda. Tangibly, this would involve handing control of how money is spent – in a specific set of cases – to local people.

To truly enable places to feel they have ‘taken back control’, Rishi Sunak should use Wednesday’s Spending Review to lay out how this government will support local communities to get together to improve their place, with support from central government. The mechanism for government spending is just as important as the quantum of funding.

There will be some that argue the pandemic means such ambitions need to be put on the backburner. I strongly disagree. As we look to the future, and the job of building back better, communities need to be central to our recovery effort. Community organisations have a central role to play in tackling the jobs crisis, moving people furthest from the labour market back into work. As the long-term shifts in our town centres are accelerated by the pandemic, communities will be vital in reimagining our high streets so they’re fit for the twenty first century.

Making this shift in favour of community-led spending will require Sunak and Johnson to be bold. Governments traditionally don’t like doing it, because you get varied outcomes and you can’t control everything, but it’s a risk they must absolutely take if they want to fulfil the promise they made at the election.

When you give local people real power, which means access to real money, extraordinary things can happen — like Stretford Public Hall in Greater Manchester. Built for the community in 1878, by 2010 it had closed and was falling into disrepair. In 2015 local people came together to take it over and have painstakingly restored it into a self-financing beacon that lifts the whole area. It’s not only about jobs and the local economy, it’s about local pride.

What will the Shared Prosperity Fund look like?

Conveniently, there are already lots of pots of money that the Chancellor could hand over to communities at the stroke of a pen through the Spending Review. For example, we’re expecting to see more detail on the long-promised Shared Prosperity Fund, which will kick in to replace EU structural funding money next April. This funding is a huge opportunity for government to demonstrate its commitment to communities.

I’d like to see the Chancellor commit to handing a quarter of the fund (and future regeneration funding like the Towns Fund) to neighbourhood level partnerships led by community organisations. Alongside this, local people should have a role in scrutinising all spending decisions made as part of the SPF through a dramatic increase in accountability, including citizen panels.

High streets, community ownership and local placemaking

We’ll also be looking out for the Community Ownership Fund. This was committed to in the Conservative’s 2019 election manifesto and would empower local people to take ownership of important buildings and spaces in their communities. Arguably, this will be even more important as we think about a post-pandemic future. Property vacancy is on the rise as long term retail trends have been accelerated by the pandemic. Government needs to be on the front foot, supporting communities to play a greater role in their places and respond to this new reality.

The High Streets Fund can also play a role here, but it needs to be updated to prioritise locally designed schemes that can demonstrate real community influence on their plans. Finally, I’ll be looking at how local government fares in the Spending Review. In recent years, councils have shouldered the heaviest burden of central government funding cuts. This has led to high-profile bankruptcies, most recently seen in Croydon. For councils to play an active central role in high street reimagination and placemaking in partnership with their communities, their funding settlement cannot continue its recent trajectory.

A signal of intent

This Spending Review provides government the opportunity to show how it will make good on its commitment to levelling up and supporting those in ‘left behind’ communities. Rightly, much will be focused on the immediate economic challenges precipitated by the pandemic. However, for these recovery plans to have the transformative impact government hopes, communities need to be front and centre of their design and delivery.