By Jenny Sansom, policy officer, Power to Change.
It’s difficult to turn on the radio or scroll through the news now without stumbling across ‘levelling up’. Paradoxically, when you try to dig down to the detail of what it is, there’s very little to draw on. While the term is still contested, there is growing consensus that levelling up aims to address regional inequality and support ‘left behind’ communities.
Inequalities are found throughout the UK between different communities and places, and indeed often within the same communities. Inequality is complex and manifests in many ways – through our health, income, employment opportunities, social connections, access to greenspace, and more. These inequalities can reinforce one another, and ultimately result in hugely different levels of individual and community wellbeing.
Community-led organisations excel at holistically tackling social issues and redressing inequality. So, to get the best results from levelling up investment, the government should listen to the growing chorus of people calling for greater devolution of power and investment to communities.
Our recent Backing our Neighbourhoods report argues that so far the government’s approach to levelling up, and the funds deployed for this purpose, has been far too centralised. Local community-led organisations must have more influence and control over how levelling up money is spent. They’re well placed to do this, because they have a close-up perspective on a range of complex and interrelated social issues – in short, they know what their communities want and need.
The report also calls for a greater investment in social infrastructure – the physical spaces and community facilities which bring people together to build meaningful relationships and create social value in many different ways.
Levelling up on the ground
Community-led organisations like the Bromley-by-Bow Centre (BBBC) in East London understand the importance of social infrastructure in helping to address inequalities. They also know that in real life, issues such as health, well-being, and employability all affect each other closely – so their approach is to address them in combination. They have a very different perspective from the siloed departments of government.
Led by the local community, Bromley-By-Bow Centre is a vibrant health and community facility that has grown steadily over 35 years. The services it provides respond to the needs of local people, combined with knowledge gained from international research on the social determinants of health.
BBBC’s unique model promotes health and wellbeing through a combination of social entrepreneurship, the arts, learning, social support, horticulture, and holistic and integrated health programmes. It is delivered in partnership with the local GP service – the Bromley by Bow Health Partnership (BBBHP).
In this way, community activities and statutory health services are combined to tackle the high levels of poverty and health inequalities in the community and empower local people to transform their own lives. Over the last 12 months the Bromley by Bow Centre has supported around 10,000 people, and BBBHP provides primary health care services to more than 30,000 registered patients – around 10% of the Tower Hamlets population.
The power of social infrastructure
The team at BBBC know that the ability to get back into work is often linked with overall confidence levels and strong mental well-being. Poor mental health can be triggered by a range of different things including isolation, problems with money or poor physical health. These kinds of combinations can put people into a state of crisis, but as the causes are multiple, so are the solutions and therapies offered by the centre.
Kelly, a health champion at BBBC, came into the service at a time of crisis. She got through this time with the help of therapy, debt advice and fitness classes. “I was at rock bottom, I was hospitalised at my worst anxiety phase and I was seriously underweight. Now I just feel like I’m me again and its thanks to the Bromley by Bow Centre that I’ve come out of my shell. Being here is like being in the central base, like a beehive. The place where everyone wants to go to because they help you in so many more ways than one. When you’re here, we are a community… there’s been debt relief, there’s been citizen’s advice, there’s a fit for all club that I now attend. And I’m hoping that with the fit for all and the health awareness course that I can actually go on and maybe take my own group.”
As a result, Kelly has regained her wellbeing and confidence and a sense of direction around her future working life. By having a big range of activities on offer, and allowing people to choose the services and activities which they feel most drawn to, Bromley-by-Bow centre promotes health, community and wellbeing in a truly holistic way.
Sharon, a horticulturalist, volunteers in the garden at BBBC. “I know being in this garden has helped me get through losing my mum, and my cancer because it is just peaceful, you haven’t got people telling what to do or how you should feel, and the plants don’t answer you back. Don’t take a tablet. I just think come back into nature. I never believed that I could be one of those [back to nature types] but being outside is just beautiful. I say to people ‘come and do a bit of gardening and if you don’t like it, we’ve got 20 million other sessions you can try.’”
Community organisations are significant as a critical part of social infrastructure in terms of who they employ. Rooted in their communities, they help people move from long-term unemployment into work and are a vital source of employment for those most disadvantaged by the labour market.
Wade is currently employed as a sports course coordinator. He has been supported by Bromley by Bow to progress from volunteer through to paid staff member. “I’ve been here for five years. I’ve been here to see changes in myself and at the centre as a whole during that time. I started out supporting sessions, more a sports administrator type of role. It’s been a progression because I did the level two, then level three – and I’m a coordinator now. I think I’ve learned so much and I can definitely put the stuff I have learned to good use in other areas outside the organisation.”
Bromley-by-Bow centre is just one example of our nation’s vital social infrastructure, yet work with the same kinds of multiple social benefits is taking place across the country. We see it in settings such as libraries, community centres, cafes, multi-use leisure centres and community shops. The Bromley by Bow Centre is a practical example of what is possible when communities are put in the lead. If levelling up succeeds, it will have a life-changing impact on people and communities across the country. However, if levelling up is to work, it’s time for government to trust communities and recognise that the solutions to social and economic challenges we face lie with local people and the community organisations which serve and respond to them.