As Covid-19 cases fall and restrictions ease, the idea of a post-pandemic life is beginning to feel within reach. With it, the government’s promise to ‘level up’ is evolving from a slogan into a series of initiatives and funds that will be distributed across the country. Although the contours of levelling up remain vague, it’s clear that there’s an ambition to think beyond traditional indicators for tackling inequalities. In announcing the £4bn Levelling Up Fund, Rishi Sunak promised “a new, holistic place-based approach”, recognising the importance of communities’ abilities to channel investments to local priorities.
The need for local social infrastructure to leverage and direct government intervention has become widely accepted with research such as Onward’s social fabric index finding a warm reception, particularly among Red Wall conservatives. And the failure of previous initiatives to shift the dial on geographical inequality underlines the need for a different approach. But how to create connection and capacity within communities in practice has received less consideration.
“We all knew we couldn’t go back to Barrow as it was before Coronavirus,” says Sam Plum, CEO of the Borough Council in Barrow in Furness - a town that nears the top of many levelling up lists. “That normal didn’t work for so many of our residents. It wasn’t giving them the home and the security they deserve. We needed to think about how we create a story.”
Creating that story became the goal of Barrow New Constellation, one of 52 projects funded through the National Lottery Community Fund’s Emerging Futures Fund (EFF). The Fund is an experiment in supporting communities to shape their own futures - to emerge from the pandemic able to articulate their own narrative and imagine a different way of doing things. It’s also a demonstration of the need for infrastructure and resourcing that supports the rhetoric of putting communities in the lead. And as well as creating a set of individual stories for each of the communities involved, it creates space for civil society to innovate and show what the social infrastructure of the future could look like. As Dame Julia Unwin pointed out in a recent Bennett Institute discussion, “every wave of big social change creates the next wave of civil society activity. This may be another moment like that. We have to be enabling people to think what would we need next.”
Social entrepreneur Hilary Cottam, who introduced New Constellations to Barrow in Furness council and is also leading the EFF funded Radical Way project says this work within communities is essential if investment is to have any tangible impact. “Money often sinks through the soil. What is important is a story that rises in people’s hearts and operates at a different level because it builds on emotions, relationships and imagination and links these to the concrete every day - investments in the economy and society - in new ways.”
But there are few opportunities for communities to build these stories. “We’re obsessed with outcome and impact and what we can measure,” says Dan Burgess who leads Dreamspace Bath an EFF project to collect stories around racism, climate and inequalities to help shape the future of the city. “We undervalue the ability to create spaces for people to speak and speak more deeply not just rant, but speak from the heart. It’s hard to measure the impact of that. But things do shift for people. They go back out into the world with it and do their thing, and something happens.”
Tangible shifts are under way in Barrow, where the Council’s CEO and local police chief were among 15 local residents recruited to set aside their job titles and expectations and spend an intense and immersive week on equal terms as the ‘crew’ to navigate Barrow’s future.
“Imagine you’re on a little boat on the open sea. When a boat orients towards a star, you’ve determined the course and the direction you’re going to take and therefore your destination. So what are the new stars that can be our new guideposts? And which if we head towards them will change our behaviour individually and collectively and reorientate our ways of living and working and connecting,” says Gemma Mortensen from New Constellations.
The 12 stars that the crew identified to guide Barrow’s future are now being taken to the Council to be adopted as guideposts to all decision making. They are already being used to direct the £25m Towns Deal funding awarded to Barrow, including involving residents in designing a planned new university campus, creating a community hub by the beach to connect people with nature and local heritage, and building an ‘imaginarium’ as part of the remodeling of the town centre.
The Barrow experiment is notable for the wholehearted commitment of local leadership. In Hastings, another prospective Towns Fund recipient, the community is keen to capitalise on the momentum gained through pandemic mutual aid initiatives. They’ve seen a huge appetite among local people to help shape a vision for their future but are having to work to overcome the local council's reticence to hear what the public say outside of official channels. “We’re starting to get noticed now and we’re seen as partners and people to engage with,” says Susanne Currid who’s working on the Emerging Futures Fund project, Hastings Emerging Futures. “There’s more to be done. We’re trying to encourage new and co-creative ways to develop these big conversations between the council and our local community. We’re telling them, don’t discount this - see what can be done. People can be really passionate about it.”
Although the Emerging Future Fund projects are still young, it’s clear that communities cannot shape their future in isolation. They require the ear, and the support, of government, especially local authorities. “There’s a gap between ideas being heard and how it’s being acted on,” says Dan Burgess of Dreamspace Bath. “People are looking at national politics as a four year cycle that doesn’t deliver, local place is where change can, should and must happen.”
But empowering communities may have limited impact if local authorities themselves do not have the capacity or resources to support residents’ ambitions, and if they find themselves circumvented by initiatives that are allocated from Whitehall. “You can have a million brilliant ideas but people in power need to be prepared to take risks and exercise their own political capital to make them happen, that takes bravery and a huge amount of resilience,” says Gemma Mortensen of New Constellations.
The Emerging Futures Fund projects are discovering that with time and space to come together, communities can unleash their imaginations to write the story of their own futures. Enabling them to translate these dreams into reality will be the test of Levelling Up in practice.
About the author
Catherine Miller is an independent researcher, writer and consultant and a learning partner with the Emerging Futures Fund of The National Lottery Community Fund. She was previously CEO of Doteveryone, the responsible technology think tank, and Executive Manager of the Mile End Institute at Queen Mary University of London.