How to make places even stickier

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With the launch of two reports calling on government to put communities in the lead and invest in social infrastructure in order to achieve levelling up, Ailbhe McNabola reflects on the findings and what needs to happen next.

By Ailbhe McNabola, director of policy and communications, Power to Change.

“… it turns out [that] places are sticky: the people of the former industrial towns were attached to them, and lacked the desire, or possibly the skills and contacts, to make moving to a big city an easy option.”

– Danny Kruger MP, Levelling up our communities (2020)

Many parts of the UK have struggled economically for at least the last 40 years. The UK, before the Covid-19 pandemic, was already the most spatially unequal society among developed nations with communities in many places feeling ‘left behind’. In too many places, local people feel that their place has been neglected and they struggle to see how this could be turned around.

One might expect people in these places to look elsewhere for opportunity. But many can’t move, or indeed don’t want to, as Danny Kruger observed. People can’t afford to move, haven’t got the connections to do so, or feel a sense of belonging to a place and have family and other connections there. The solution to reviving places, restoring pride and improving the lives of local communities is not to assume that people will ship out, but rather it’s to give the people who are committed to the place a chance to improve it for themselves – and, importantly, capture the value that they create in doing so.

What shapes a place?

Historically, local industry and trade have played a significant role in shaping our communities and generating local pride. To this day, 43 bottle kilns continue to dominate the cityscape of Stoke-on-Trent, a reminder of the area’s once leading global ceramics industry. At its height there were more than 4,000 kilns and almost everyone living in the area was connected to the potteries. It generated a huge sense of pride for local people that continues today.

In more recent years, our towns have been shaped by more remote influences – central and local governments, developers and investors. They determine how towns and cities look and what’s on offer. Of course, the wider local economic environment also dictates what places are like to live in – what kind of work is available, the transport infrastructure, housing, the leisure and cultural offer.

Communities shaping and reviving their places

This week the centre-right think tank Onward published Turnaround: How to regenerate Britain’s less prosperous communities by helping them take back control. It calls on government to rethink its levelling up strategy and devolve power to local neighbourhoods. The research found that the most successful regeneration strategies of the last few decades were those that focused on smaller geographic areas such as neighbourhoods, invested in community capacity over the long-term, and helped communities take ownership of local assets.

The report echoes the findings of our recent paper Backing our Neighbourhoods, where we argue that levelling up cannot succeed unless the government invests in social infrastructure – the physical spaces and community facilities which bring people together to build meaningful relationships. It’s good to see a growing recognition of the importance of social infrastructure in levelling up. And how getting behind communities will deliver the government’s ambitions. In fact, it’s already happening.

Local, community-led development activity has been quietly transforming places in the UK for some years now. Places like Union Street in Plymouth, and the White Rock area in Hastings, where communities have come together to consult locally, establish community businesses, take on properties and revive previously ailing and neglected areas. Onion Collective in Watchet is about to open a £7m community-led arts centre, crucial to reviving the local economy and labour market in this struggling seaside town. And there are many, many more examples.

Local communities have been doing this, and doing it well, for many years – offering skills development and creating jobs, employing overwhelmingly (circa 80%) from the local area, and incubating and supporting new start-up businesses, while also improving the physical fabric of the area, boosting pride of place and enhancing the public realm.

The value they create is captured for the local community through community ownership of businesses and properties. At Power to Change, we are proud to back and support them.

Valuable lessons

There is learning here for those developing Government’s levelling up agenda. It’s interesting to look at what local people invest in and what they deliver – because they prioritise what matters to their community. They take on vacant and often derelict properties, they offer community spaces, workspaces, cafés, sports and leisure facilities, libraries.

This is often what is referred to as ‘social infrastructure’, the physical spaces and community facilities which bring people together to build meaningful relationships . The concept has been gaining currency in recent months, with many influential economic commentators and institutions talking about the importance of investing in social infrastructure to achieve greater prosperity and wellbeing.

For example, Frontier Economics estimated that a £1 million investment in community-led social infrastructure in a left-behind area could generate approximately £1.2 million of fiscal benefits and £2 million of social and economic benefits over a ten-year period, as well as other non-monetised benefits. And with New Philanthropy Capital highlighting that only approximately 13% of the current major regeneration/levelling up funding streams is likely to go towards social infrastructure, greater investment is needed.

But it’s not just that more investment is called for. Both Onward’s and our reports argue that investment in social infrastructure must be made alongside investment in physical infrastructure, because social infrastructure complements and supports the benefits that physical infrastructure can deliver, and because it matters to communities in the places that Government wants to level up. But crucially, both reports also point out that how that investment is made matters.

Neighbourhood priorities, and opportunities, can’t easily be spotted from Whitehall. And we really don’t need another well-intentioned but ultimately ineffective attempt at regeneration. As Onward’s analysis shows, there are some key lessons that “make or break” regeneration, which the Government’s levelling up approach would do well to take into account:

 

  • Community-led. Communities must have a stake in regeneration, not merely be consulted, if improvement is likely to be sustained beyond the funding period. And, some communities require greater capacity to be involved in the design and financial control of initiatives.
  • Creating lasting strength. The best schemes take both an asset-based approach and introduce new forms of civic governance to oversee the change, building long term institutional strength in the process.
  • Building upwards from the neighbourhood level. It is vital that regeneration happens at the appropriate geographic level, which for many activities will be the neighbourhood level, and that it combines social as well as economic interventions over the long term.