To level up, put communities in the lead 

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If government is serious about levelling up, it must put communities in the lead .

By Nick Plumb, Policy Manager at Power to Change

Yesterday was a good day. Following months of hard work from colleagues across the organisation, we published Backing our Neighbourhoods: Making levelling up work by putting communities in the lead.  

It argues that government is at risk of falling woefully short of meeting its own levelling up ambitions by hanging tightly on to a centralised approach. If it truly wants to level up the country, government must start by trusting and backing communities, and invest in social infrastructure at a neighbourhood level.  

There is a growing body of work recognising the importance of social infrastructure – the physical spaces and community facilities which bring people together to build meaningful relationships. But despite an increased interest in the subject, there has been little debate on the how to go about supporting and strengthening neighbourhood-level social infrastructure.  

At Power to Change, we know this really matters, and that we need a new neighbourhoods strategy for levelling up – one that relinquishes some centralised control in order to harness the full potential of community organisations. 

Importantly, this approach could prove a popular as well as effective. New polling by Opinium reveals 63% of us agree that the levelling up agenda should involve giving local people more power over the decisions, services and spaces which shape the places where they live.  

Community organisations: a partner to government on levelling up 

Levelling up is a notoriously slippery concept to pin down. Thousands of column inches have been devoted to trying to define it. Instinctively, we’ve always felt that the concept lent itself well to partnership with community organisations. Through the paper, we test this theory and find that there are four areas where social infrastructure can play a distinct role.  

  • Restoring pride in place by improving the physical fabric of places, particularly where investment is weak: Community organisations’ deep local understanding and connection, access to alternative capital and phased approach to development enables them to progressively improve the physical fabric of neighbourhoods that have been blighted by vacancies and dereliction. This will be central to people’s perceptions of whether levelling up is successful. 
  • Strengthening community and local leadership: Community organisations have a strong connection to local people. They are trusted and can reach into communities that the statutory sector struggles to engage. They are vital cogs in their local ecosystem, often acting as key trusted intermediaries between residents and the statutory sector. Community empowerment is central to their approach, and investment in this element of our social infrastructure is critical to our longer-term resilience. 
  • Increasing and spreading opportunity by providing jobs and working with people furthest from the labour market: By being locally rooted and trusted, community organisations create the routes that can connect those who are unlikely to be reached by traditional employment support programmes to new opportunities. Their success should not be measured by the absolute number of jobs they create but by who they are able to connect into the labour market. 
  • Improving quality of life by providing spaces where people can meet, mix and form connections: In a growing number of communities, the need for spaces and places to meet and form connections is being met by community organisations, stepping in where local authorities and the private sector have withdrawn. In these spaces, community businesses facilitate social connection, which in turn can reduce social isolation and tackle the social determinants of poor health. 

A missed opportunity 

Despite this evidence, current support for levelling up – notably the Levelling Up Fund, the Community Renewal Fund and the Community Ownership Fund – is poorly targeted to enable community organisations to deliver on their potential. Putting aside questions about how much money is spent on supporting social infrastructure, the key point is that providing more funding for social infrastructure without making changes to how it is deployed is unlikely to be effective. There are three key issues with the current approach.  

First, funds are too distant from local places to be able to target the real needs of particular communities and neighbourhoods. Second, community organisations have struggled to access the Levelling Up and Community Renewal Funds which account for a significant share of the funding currently available for social infrastructure. The scale of the funds on offer, and the risks attendant on investing scarce funds into competitive bidding processes, are a particular barrier. Finally, there is an inadequate focus in existing funds on investment to build the capacity of communities to contribute to levelling up. Under this competitive system, this affects those communities that need support most acutely. 

Breaking this cycle 

To overcome these challenges, we need to take a different tack. We need a new neighbourhoods strategy for levelling up, that encompasses the following five changes: 

  1. Scope within existing funding for money to be directly controlled at the community level. 25 per cent of the future UK Shared Prosperity Fund should be passed directly to community-led partnerships to support the development of social infrastructure at neighbourhood level. 
  2. A focus on community asset ownership. The government should have an ambition to accelerate community ownership in parts of the country where it is currently weaker, flexing its Community Ownership Fund to increase access for projects from more disadvantaged communities. 
  3. An investment in building the skills and capacity of communities. The government should look to the next tranche of the Dormant Assets Scheme to create a Community Wealth Fund, as advocated by the Community Wealth Alliance. 
  4. A shift in the way we assess investment. We need a balanced scorecard approach to judging whether neighbourhood-level social infrastructure investments deliver, and an investment in building the data sets to enable this more rounded approach. 
  5. A complementary focus on local authorities. The pandemic highlighted the power of communities and local government working together in partnership in an agile way. Levelling up will depend on relinquishing a level of centralised control to unlock the power of that partnership. 

The evidence is clear. Community organisations should be central partners in levelling up. Now’s the time for government to shift its approach to make that happen. If it does, it can really start delivering on its levelling up ambitions. If not, trouble may be brewing round the corner. 

Read the full paper here.

And do get in touch if you have comments, questions or feedback on the report.