Local places need to be given more power to level up communities with a greater focus and funding for social infrastructure. Jack Shaw outlines the experiences of Barking and Dagenham.
With its emphasis on ‘building back better’, the levelling-up agenda is central to the Government’s attempt to tackle the deep-rooted concern in communities across the country that they have been ‘left behind’.
Almost every department in Whitehall has laid claim to levelling-up in one way or another but so far, the Government has by and large limited funding to transport and infrastructure.
While boosting economic growth is a core element of levelling-up, whether that be improving lagging productivity or futureproofing transport infrastructure, the Government’s current focus is too narrow.
Pursuing economic outcomes alone isn’t a good indicator of life satisfaction and is unlikely to be the antidote to the challenges we face. Tapping into the potential of local communities in a systemic and co-ordinated way requires a broader appreciation of what is meaningful to people’s lives.
When Professor Anand Menon, of UK in a Changing Europe, asked an audience in Newcastle to imagine the economic toll Brexit would have on the country’s GDP, he was heckled: “that’s your bloody GDP, not ours”. That moment neatly encapsulated the anger of what London School of Economics Professor Andrés Rodríguez-Pose calls the “places that don’t matter”.
A collective cri de coeur is this: the focus on the economy must be accompanied by a willingness to address the social needs of local communities across the whole of the UK.
That means re-imagining social infrastructure – the building block of social capital – in order to strengthen community safety, improve health outcomes, build relationships and civic engagement, reduce unemployment, enhance skills, and increase educational attainment.
But you can’t build communities without community space. These sites of socialisation and chance encounters are opportunities to share knowledge, learn and converse – and they’re great levellers, often accommodating different social, religious or ethnic groups that may not always come into contact with one another.
Yet the different needs of local authorities have largely been ignored in favour of a top-down approach managed by Whitehall. Setting spending priorities from the centre in the form of ring-fenced funding creates perverse incentives for local authorities who duly bid for funding simply because it’s on offer, regardless of whether it fits with their strategic priorities.
Take the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, which has been designated the highest priority for the Levelling Up Fund and the Community Renewal Fund. Welcome though it is, the Leader of the Council, Darren Rodwell, said that the investment for transport and infrastructure in the borough is something the Government should already be providing. The borough has already brought in almost £2 billion itself in investment through ventures including Eastbrook Film Studio, University College London’s research laboratory PEARL, and the re-location of the historic Smithfield, Billingsgate and New Spitalfields markets. Not every authority will be able to secure that level of investment.
According to Rodwell, what’s missing is greater support from the Government for social infrastructure. He cites the borough’s housebuilding programme, one of the largest in London, as the primary vehicle the borough has used to secure social infrastructure – largely through Community Infrastructure Levy funding. That’s alongside partnerships which have brought Participatory City and a Youth Zone to the borough, while East End Women’s Museum is currently under construction. Rodwell is concerned that local authorities like his haven’t been consulted about what their communities want out of the levelling-up agenda – the implication being that the Government’s chances of getting it right are unconvincing. The lack of flexibility and consultation baked into the levelling-up agenda is inevitably going to create a system of winners and losers – with some authorities securing the investment they need while others miss out.
Tessy Britton, Chief Executive of Participatory City, which is responsible for delivering community projects across the borough, echoed similar concerns to Rodwell and spoke of the importance of Participatory City not just in terms of the physical space it provides but the activities it delivers that bring people together. From art workshops and book exchanges to a tea & chat, its interventions are designed around people not in employment, unpaid carers and low-income workers and are “built into everyday life”. They are part of a “living, breathing ecosystem” which through devolved decision-making empowers people to take control of their lives.
Britton describes Participatory City in similar terms to sociologist Emile Durkheim’s collective effervescence: of communities coming together, building relationships, communicating, participating. This experience gives people the confidence to “reinvent themselves” and improves life chances, often being a stepping-stone into employment.
One of the challenges with this approach to levelling-up is the ‘evidence paradox’ hard-wired into policymakers, particularly in HM Treasury, who are often accused of seeing numbers and not people. Yet there is a wealth of evidence that addressing the social needs of communities improves economic outcomes. Welcoming thousands through their doors and racking up 28,000 hours of community participation over the last two years, Participatory City is indispensable to many residents in Barking and Dagenham.
So where so do we go from here?
First, what’s clear is that the Government’s approach needs to take into account the context of place. Building back better and fairer requires a place-based settlement that responds to local opportunities, potential and needs.
In Barking and Dagenham that means rebuilding social infrastructure. So far the Government’s £150 million Community Ownership Fund is the closest we get to earmarked funding for social infrastructure – but that doesn’t go far enough because it only enables local groups to take over community assets already at risk of being lost.
Second, if the spending taps remain on – and the proselytising of ‘build back better’ and ‘plan for growth’ suggest that to be the case – the role of social infrastructure needs to be given greater consideration.
The mismatch between the funding available to tackle the social needs of local communities on the one hand and transport and infrastructure on the other must be addressed. Earmarking a percentage of infrastructure spending for social infrastructure is one option.
Third, though the existing prospectus’ encourage funding bids for shovel-ready projects, the terms of reference for any new funding envelope should be on a longer-term footing.
The Community Wealth Alliance has proposed a £2 billion Community Wealth Fund that is independent of the Government precisely so that it isn’t subject to fleeting political priorities.
We shouldn’t rule out tax increases either. In the aftermath of the financial crisis Ohio in the US held a referendum on increasing tax to save libraries. Residents backed it two-to-one. In the UK, prior to the pandemic support for higher spending was the highest in a decade.
Above all, we need to shift the dial on the national conversation so that the type of society we want to create post-pandemic is the single most important question in the minds of politicians. The answer will inevitably shape what follows.
The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s).