“Levelling Up” after the lockdown must focus on community revival

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“Levelling Up” after the lockdown must focus on community revival as well as economic growth, MPs and charities demand.
12 Jan, 2021
  • New Onward report, supported by a cross-party coalition of MPs and leading civic organisations, calls for ministers to hand power and capital back to communities after the pandemic to repair Britain’s fraying social fabric.
  • Recommendations include giving every local area the “right to self government” through a town or parish council; giving communities the power to secure land for community-led social housing; a new family tax allowance to allow couples to transfer their £12,500 tax allowance to a working spouse; and a new Year to Serve scheme to subsidise jobless young peopleto do civic service.
  • The report is backed by 13 MPs, including Danny Kruger, Jon Cruddas, Jo Gideon, Gareth Davies, Siobhan Baillie and Paul Maynard, as well as leading civic organisations including Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), Shelter, Power to Change, LocalTrust, and New Philanthropy Capital.

The Government’s flagship levelling up ambition will fail unless Ministers take concerted action to invest in and empower fraying communities after the pandemic, a report for Onward, backed by a cross-party coalition of MPs and civic organisations, will say today.

The report, The Policies of Belonging, is a response to growing evidence that community is in long term decline in Britain. In 2019, polling for Onward found that 71% of people agree that “community has declined in my lifetime” and in September 2020 the thinktank warned that there has been a steady fall in the last decade in levels of volunteering, local group membership, church attendance, community activities, family trips, philanthropy and social trust. While the pandemic led initially to an outpouring of public spiritedness, this benefited high trust neighbourhoods much more than others.

To rekindle a sense of belonging in all Britain’s communities after lockdown finally ends, Onward sets out a series of policies to give power to individuals and communities to give back locally, and greater resources to ensure that the most fraying communities have strong reciprocal networks and institutions. The main proposals suggest ministers should:

  1. Give every local area the “right to self government” through a parish or town council. At present, only 25% of England is represented by a parish or town council, compared to 70% of Wales and 100% of Scotland, and many recent attempts to create them have been thwarted by boroughs or districts. In next year’s Devolution White Paper, Ministers should pave the way for the widespread introduction of town and parish councils, while also giving town and parish councils the right to assume ownership of, and responsibility for, green spaces, community sports facilities, community centres and local high street maintenance in their
  2. Introduce a “family tax allowance” to allow partners to transfer their £12,500 tax allowance to their working spouse. This would replace the marriage tax allowance and extend it from the current £1,250 to the full £12,500 tax -free amount. This would recognise families rather than just the individuals through the tax system and allow either partner to commit to child or family care without foregoing their tax allowance – or balance part-time work and familial or community commitments without a penalty
  3. Empower communities to secure land for community-led housing to ensure a supply of local affordable or social homes. Few things root people to places than secure housing, so communities should be given the right to establish a community land trust to provide affordable homes for local people. Where social housing waiting lists are excessive or housing is scarce, there should be a new obligation placed on local authorities to identify, purchase and zone suitable land to meet the identified housing need for local people. The report also recommends that Ministers should offer discounted land to private rented tenants who want to self-build their own home, either individually on small plots or collectively across a larger site, in a new discounted “Right to Buy” for renters.
  4. Introduce ‘Year to Serve’, a civic service scheme to give unemployed young people a paid placement with local charities or social businesses. To mitigate the long-term scarring of unemployment and to build upon the wave of volunteering during the pandemic, the Government should pay young people the national minimum wage to serve their community: tutoring early years pupils to halve the literacy gap, supporting residents of care homes, by planting 30 million trees per year, or boosting English language teaching for migrants. The scheme would easily be introduced alongside the Government’s current Kickstart or developed within it.
  5. Give workers the ability to draw down a year of their pension early to take a “civic sabbatical” from work to give back to society. This would give people of working age the right to access one year of their pension early in order to give them the financial security to volunteer, start a community venture, retrain or start a local company. They would retire a year later to make up for the working – and contributing – time lost and to maintain fairness in the system.

The report is backed by a large number of MPs, including: Jo Gideon MP, Gareth Davies MP, Paul Maynard MP, Aaron Bell MP, Kevin Hollinrake MP, Siobhan Baillie MP, Rob Largan MP, Alex Stafford MP, Nicholas Fletcher MP, Robert Halfon MP, Paul Bristow MP, Danny Kruger MP, Jon Cruddas MP.

In addition to the programme funders – the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Shelter and Power to Change, the report has also beenendorsed by Local Trust, Trust for London, New Philanthropy Capital, Unbound Philanthropy, the Young Foundation, NAVCA andCatch22.

The report is the latest in Onward’s Repairing our Social Fabric Programme, a major cross party programme launched last year to study the changing nature of community in the UK and to develop ideas for how to strengthen the ties that bind people together at a local level

It is chaired by Lord O’Shaughnessy and the steering group includes the Conservative Danny Kruger MP, Labour Jon Cruddas MP and former SNP Eilish Whiteford MP. It is funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Shelter and Power to Change.

Will Tanner, Director of Onward, said:

“Everyone focuses on the impact of lockdown on the economy but the truth is that the pandemic has taken a terrible toll on the social fabric of our lives, compounding the long-term decline of community over recent decades.

“As we emerge – finally – from the pandemic, we need to not just revive a flatlining economy, we need to take steps to empower and recapitalise communities, to give people back a sense of belonging and rekindle the social networks and institutions upon which we all rely.

Jo Gideon, MP for Stoke on Trent Central, said

“This excellent report provides an important evidence base for the need to empower local communities to tackle the great challenge of repairing our social fabric, and offers practical recommendations for building social infrastructure. Investing in people and places to create strong and resilient community networks has to be at the heart of any levelling up plan.”

Gareth Davies, MP for Grantham and Stamford, said:

“We will not succeed in levelling up opportunity in the UK unless we invest in the social fabric of communities as well as the bricks and mortar infrastructure of local economies. It is often the high street and the civic networks of a place, not the railway line, that determines people’s happiness and prosperity. After the pandemic we need to invest in a revival in communities and empower local people as much as possible.”

Paul Maynard, MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, said:

“I am pleased to see Onward continue its work to understand how we can repair the social fabric in the more deprived communities such as those I represent. Levelling up doesn’t just mean big infrastructure, it’s also about giving local people the ability once more to shape their own communities for the better. Change is always better when done with the people affected rather than done to them by a distant set of politicians. Onward’s report sets out a clear but creative way to make that happen. I am sure the Government is listening as this is required reading for those interested in cementing our representation across the country”.

Aaron Bell, MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme, said:

“The coronavirus pandemic has shown the enormous value of local communities in helping the vulnerable and sustaining us all through some of the most difficult times in living memory. But it has also shown the fragility of our social fabric and left high streets and local pubs struggling further.

Onward’s proposal for local groups to be able to take over empty shops for community use has the potential not only toreinvigorate local economies, but also to revive a sense of community that has been lost in recent decades.”

Siobhan Baillie, MP for Stroud, said:

“With people at home more, missing family & looking out for neighbours during the pandemic, the sense of local belonging is stronger than ever & people want it to continue. This report is a smart look at how policies can boost and support the effort without drowning the community spirit along the way.”

Alex Stafford, MP for Rother Valley, said:

“We must strengthen the institutions and ties that bind us together or else risk ruin. These important policy proposals from Onward outline a pragmatic path to restoring Britain’s social fabric.”