The Levelling Up White Paper – what we learned

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The Government published its Levelling Up White Paper this week. Power to Change’s Ailbhe McNabola gives her reaction on whether it will deliver for communities.
4 Feb, 2022
Ailbhe McNabola

Ailbhe McNabola

Director of Policy and Communications

Before we get into dissecting all 332 pages of the Levelling Up White Paper, let’s remind ourselves of what we hoped it would deliver for communities, especially those that feel left behind or whose neighbourhoods have experienced decline in recent years.

As my colleague Nick Plumb wrote last week, and as evidence from our research and from recent polling shows, communities want to feel pride in where they live and to see tangible improvements to the places they care about. They want a meaningful say in decisions that affect them and their neighbourhoods, towns and cities. We were hoping to see a white paper that would recognise the importance of communities and neighbourhoods in addressing regional inequality, and take on board that this kind of change takes time, and can’t all be directed from our capital city.

And it’s fair to say that things have definitely moved on. This is a flagship white paper that is taking very seriously the importance of community empowerment and the role played by community, social infrastructure – the places and spaces in neighbourhoods, where people can meet and build relationships in their communities. Alongside the usual emphasis on research & development spending, jobs and investment there is a welcome focus on community, quality of life and quality of place, social capital and wellbeing.

Shifting power out of London

At Power to Change, we’ve been calling for a radical reimagining of who can exercise power in this country for some time. With this white paper, it’s promising to see government starting to devolve funding and decision making out of Whitehall This is matched with an aspiration for this to happen universally across the country, not in the fragmented way it has so far.

The local government geek in me is also excited to see reference to the principle of subsidiarity – the idea that decision-making should take place at the most localised level at which it can be most effectively performed. So, to limit devolution to metro and county mayor level is a missed opportunity that doesn’t align with this principle of subsidiarity. For levelling up to succeed, it must go further and empower people at a neighbourhood level – because local people are best placed to understand and deliver against the needs of their communities. The neighbourhood is, so often, the level at which decision making is most effectively performed.

Beginning to empower communities and neighbourhoods

Despite this, the white paper commits Government to pilot new models of community partnership, including Community Covenants, where the local state and community work together to address challenges, enhance places and improve public services. I’m pleased to see this and will keep a close eye on how these pilots develop, and how this approach can be scaled up and given powers and funding over time.  If this works – and I believe it can – then it could be the ideal local vehicle for deciding how UK Shared Prosperity Fund allocations are spent. With Mayors increasingly pulling powers down from Westminster, there needs to be a strong layer of neighbourhood governance that can work with them, particularly in the places that do not have town or parish councils.

Government will also explore changes to neighbourhood governance such as Community Improvement Districts, which would give local communities more say in the development or regeneration of their high streets and town centres. At Power to Change, we are working with others to develop the concept of a Community Improvement District and are currently piloting this model with the Mayor of London, in Kilburn and Wood Green. We plan to expand these pilots to other places this year.

Driving up community ownership

We have long argued that community ownership of assets, such as buildings or green spaces, underpins community power. The white paper recognises that the Community Ownership Fund (launched last year) is not yet reaching the communities that need it most and commits Government to a review of how it is delivered – which is the right thing to do. The Fund represents a huge opportunity to grow community ownership, so it’s important we get it right. Alongside this, the white paper also recognises that Community Asset Transfer and the listing of Assets of Community Value (part of the Community Right to Bid) should be looked at and strengthened. We have called for the Community Right to Bid to be boosted, creating a Community Right to Buy that gives local people first refusal if a cherished local asset comes up for sale.

Just the starting point

Many commentators this week have been saying that this white paper is just the starting point of what will be a long-term endeavour. We welcome that Government will work to co-design a new overarching Strategy for Community Spaces and Relationships that will focus on strengthening community and neighbourhood infrastructure to build social capital. This is a topic close to our hearts at Power to Change, covered in this paper that we wrote with The Cares Family last year. This year, we’ll continue to explore what works at the neighbourhood level, including an in-depth look at social infrastructure’s vital role in levelling up, working in partnership with the British Academy.