It’s vital that levelling up delivers for communities

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Power to Change’s Nick Plumb outlines the four things he’ll be looking out for in the Levelling Up White Paper when it publishes in the coming weeks
28 Jan, 2022
Nick Plumb

Nick Plumb

Policy and Public Affairs Manager

Amid the political theatre and turmoil we’ve seen in recent weeks, there’s still the question of the whereabouts of the government’s long-awaited Levelling Up White Paper. Mid-February is the most recent estimate but whenever it should finally arrive there are four things I’ll be looking out for which are vital if the government is serious about creating a fairer, more equitable Britain.

Reigniting pride in people for their local areas

Pride in the places where we live has long been cited as one of the four pillars of levelling up, including by Michael Gove in his Conservative Party conference speech last year. So I’m keen to see what interventions will be in the White Paper that will enable local people to feel that pride once again.

Securing a future for local high streets – the social and economic centres of our communities – will play a huge role in returning people’s sense of civic pride. Shuttered buildings, betting shops and payday lenders are very tangible symbols of decline. And high streets matter to local people. The decline of high streets comes up time and time again – unprompted – in the focus groups run by Public First when people are asked what change they expect from levelling up.

While cosmetic changes are important, the challenges facing our high streets won’t be solved by quick fixes. The move to online retail, and the growth of out-of-town shopping before it, mean the current, retail reliant model is broken. I’ll be looking for measures which engage with this reality and aim to diversify the mix of owners and occupiers on the high street. For measures which shift the dial in terms of who has a say over how town centres develop. And for an approach which recognises the bigger role communities need to play building these thriving civic high streets of the future.

Onward devolution?

The introduction of new county mayors, governors and city regions have dominated the speculation, leaks and pre-briefing that has surrounded the Levelling Up White Paper. Power to Change has long-argued that power in this country is too centralised, and this leads to a worsening situation on the ground, in communities.

I’ll be looking for signals that the government understands any devolution needs to push power to the most local level, not just new regional structures. Indeed, IPPR North recently made the case that devolution needs to be broadened and deepened, including new community partnerships between local government and communities.

We’re Right Here: the campaign for community power that Power to Change is part of, is also calling for something similar. It argues that neighbourhood-level power-sharing agreements – Community Covenants – should give community organisations and local people access to significant new powers. It is calling for a bold, new Community Power Act to enable this and provide communities with a legal right to self-determination. This is the argument that policy should, essentially, be local by default. Only when something can’t be delivered at the neighbourhood level, should local, regional and national approaches be considered instead. So, I’ll be assessing the extent to which any devolution proposed through the White Paper matches up with these ideals.

Giving people the tools needed to do the job

Any attempt to level up ‘left behind’ places has got to meet people where they’re at. There is power and strength in every community, but these strengths don’t always align nicely with skills needed to access and make government funding such as bid writing and legal expertise.

For communities of all shapes and sizes to benefit from funding and programmes delivered under the banner of levelling up, there needs to be serious investment in the day-to-day capacity, resources and skills of people and organisations that have historically missed out on regeneration funding.

Will the Levelling Up White Paper focus on this less headline grabbing end of investment? It might not deliver a shiny, new bridge, but it will enable places to ready themselves to make the most of future investment and opportunities.

Community Ownership

While last year’s launch of the Community Ownership Fund (a £150m pot to support communities to purchase and manage important local buildings) was a great moment of celebration for us, there’s real risk it’s already failing to live up to its potential.

In recent months, Power to Change has raised concerns with government that people in more economically deprived communities may struggle to access the fund. The blanket requirement for every project to match government funding pound for pound risks benefiting those places with deeper collective pockets. The current lack of early-stage support to get groups ready to bid risks compounding this further.

I’m hoping that the White Paper provides us a signal that there’ll be more flexibility baked into the criteria for future funding rounds.

Big picture

Targeted policy change focused on high streets and community ownership is important, but we’re also hoping for a bigger shift in approach. So far, the agenda has been characterised by centralised, competitive and fragmented funding pots. This wastes time and energy, as organisations and local authorities bust a gut to apply to various short-term funding programmes. Instead, a more coordinated, place-led and patient approach to levelling up is needed.

This is a big moment for the UK. Levelling up will likely shape how the Boris Johnson administration is remembered by history. More importantly, done right, it could be the start of a new approach to tackling regional inequality and long-term decline that puts communities in the driving seat. The moment demands no less.