Abandon centralised ‘Levelling Up’ or risk failure

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This new report explores why the government must abandon its centralised Westminster-led approach to ‘Levelling Up’ or risk failure from outset.

New polling reveals 63% of us agree local people should have more power over their local area.

The government is unlikely to realise its levelling up ambitions unless it decentralises funding, invests in social infrastructure and puts communities in the lead, according to a new report from Power to Change, the trust that backs community business in England.

Backing our Neighbourhoods: Making levelling up work by putting communities in the lead argues the government’s current approach risks reinforcing inequalities and levelling up cannot succeed unless it changes the way it invests in social infrastructure – the physical spaces and community facilities which bring people together to build meaningful relationships.

The report comes as new polling commissioned by Power to Change from Opinium, reveals that 63% of us agree the government’s ‘levelling up agenda’ should involve giving local people more power over the decisions, services and spaces which shape the places where they live.

The government has introduced three pots of money to help deliver its Levelling Up agenda – The Levelling Up Fund, the Community Renewal Fund and the Community Ownership Fund. Whilst the report welcomes the investment, it argues the funds are poorly targeted to support community organisations to deliver on their potential. It argues:

  • Funding decisions should be taken closer to the places they need to support, so they can more effectively target the needs of particular communities and neighbourhoods. By doing so, there is an opportunity to harness the intensely local knowledge of community organisations and local authorities, and deliver better results for people.

 

  • Community organisations have struggled to access to the Levelling Up and Community Renewal Funds, which account for a significant share of the funding currently available for social infrastructure. The scale of the funds on offer, and the risks associated with investing scarce funds into competitive bidding processes, disadvantage community organisations. This represents a missed opportunity. These organisations play an important role in improving the physical fabric of places, particularly where investment is weak, which is essential to restoring pride in local communities.

 

  • Funds need to invest in building the capacity of communities to contribute to levelling up. The centralised, competitive approach currently in place favours those who already have the skills and capacity to respond and prioritises ‘oven ready’ projects over those that will take time to develop. This is particularly problematic because it affects those communities that need support most acutely.

The report calls on greater investment in social infrastructure at the neighbourhood level to help tackle the issues facing communities:

1. 25% of the future UK Shared Prosperity Fund should pass directly to communities to create strong foundations for economic development at neighbourhood-level.

2. Community ownership should be accelerated in parts of the country where it is currently weakest. By flexing its Community Ownership Fund, the Government should increase access for projects from more disadvantaged communities.

3. The next tranche of Dormant Assets should be set aside to create a Community Wealth Fund.

4. The government should move away from assessing value for money of investment in community-led social infrastructure on the basis of narrow, largely economic cost benefit ratios. Instead, it should adopt a balanced scorecard approach and invest in building the data sets to enable this more rounded approach.

5. There must be a complementary focus on local authorities. The pandemic highlighted the power of communities and local government working together in partnership in an agile way. Levelling up will depend on relinquishing a level of centralised control to unlock the power of that partnership.

Vidhya Alakeson, CEO of Power to Change, said: “If the government is serious about seizing this once in a generation opportunity to genuinely level up the country, it must avoid the mistakes of countless governments that went before. Chief among these errors is the presumption that Whitehall always knows best. Instead, government need to get behind local people and locally-rooted organisations, trusting they are best placed to understand the needs of their local communities. The potential prize is huge.

“Our research shows that community organisations are incredibly well positioned to tackle many of the biggest challenges at the heart of levelling up – from restoring pride in place and improving local leadership to tackling imbalances in opportunity. Investing in this locally rooted social infrastructure is vital if we are to see levelling up deliver for all communities. Re-orienting the funds associated with levelling up, so that they have greater focus at the neighbourhood level, is a vital first step in unlocking this opportunity.”

Case studies

Bromley by Bow Centre, East London

The Bromley by Bow Centre is a vibrant community organisation in the heart of East London. The Centre was founded over 35 years ago and evolved from its previous use primarily as a church. Since then, it has built a national and international reputation for its innovative approach which inspires and empowers local people to transform their lives. The organisation delivers a broad range of activities based on its understanding of the local community and delivered through a unique model that combines social entrepreneurship, the arts, learning, social support, horticulture and holistic and integrated health programmes.

Together these services and opportunities make up an integrated health model delivered in partnership with local GPs in the Bromley by Bow Health Partnership. Community activities and statutory health services are combined to tackle the high levels of poverty and health inequalities in the community.

The Bromley by Bow model has led to many national innovations and breakthrough interventions such as Healthy Living Centres, Social Prescribing, DIY Health and Public Health England’s flagship embedded community research project, Unleashing Healthy Communities.

Ethical Recruitment Agency, Grimsby

Nunsthorpe is an estate in Grimsby with roughly 2,500 households, but no secondary school and just a few shops. It’s in the top 3 per cent for multiple deprivation and just 49 per cent of its 16–74 year olds are employed. Centre4 is a community hub that has been at the heart of this estate for 26 years. It is committed to the social and economic regeneration of the area – a place that has seen centrally-developed neighbourhood regeneration schemes come and go.

As Covid hit, a response to the need for local people to get into good jobs was already underway at Centre4 – the establishment of an ethical recruitment agency, ERA employment (ERA). ERA is a socially responsible employment agency for North East Lincolnshire. It is community-led and provides a personalised service to help people into work, with all surpluses used to support community projects. ERA’s approach starts from the needs of the person looking for work, rather than those of the business offering a job. So, if work isn’t immediately available, ERA supports its members to develop the right skills for local job opportunities through training, and to gain valuable experience and build confidence through ‘social action’ jobs at local community projects.

During the Covid pandemic, many members of ERA, including people who had been made redundant or were furloughed, got involved in these social action jobs: activities like shopping, digital buddying, gardening and collecting prescriptions for neighbours – all the while developing their own skills and confidence, building connections in the community, and collecting ‘points’. The experience makes a useful addition to a jobseeker’s CV, and the points collected can be spent with local businesses or on further training. As a result, 60 people were in temporary jobs in early 2021, 12 of whom have been offered permanent employment. Another 18 are already in permanent roles. Some of these are people who had previously been rejected when they had applied to their current employer, or were previously in retail and hospitality roles – sectors badly hit by the pandemic.