At a recent event on the topic of ‘Levelling Up’, internationally respected spatial economist and economic geographer Professor Philip McCann set out rather starkly a fact clearly shown by the data but still too infrequently acknowledged when we talk and think about economic development in the UK: that the UK is one of the most unequal countries in the world, in terms of the economic differences that exist both between and within regions. In fact, the UK today is almost as inter-regionally unequal as Germany was at the point of reunification, when in 1990 the former East and West German states reunited to create the modern-day federal republic. Needless to say, for the UK to be in this situation, even without the added pressures of the Covid-19 pandemic, is neither desirable nor sustainable.
So whilst it is encouraging that politicians and policy-makers are turning their attention to tackling this inequality, with the range of funds announced at Budget in March a welcome first step, we can’t deny that the scale of the challenge is enormous.
But it’s difficult to look at these things in the abstract, so let’s consider one of the many places in the UK that hopes to benefit from new levelling up policies and initiatives. Grimsby is one of the places that has seen targeted investment in the past, a recipient of a range of regeneration programmes and funds over a period of decades. And yet Grimsby still sits towards the wrong end of our regional inequality spectrum – and it’s not alone. Many so-called Left Behind areas have already seen large-scale investment programmes, and yet, as Cambridge’s Professor Pete Tyler describes it, “the problem has a momentum of its own, passing from one generation to the next”.
There is consensus around the key interventions needed: strengthening the local economic base, improving the skills and labour market readiness of the population, and improving the physical environment and connectivity of the place to surrounding areas. But history – and analysis - tells us that it’s how these are done that matters. Professor Tyler’s research has shown that regeneration initiatives that do not adequately tackle all three of these aspects can only have limited, and short-term, impact. And there is growing recognition of the importance of social infrastructure in our levelling up challenge. Recent analysis by Pro Bono Economics has shown that the presence of community assets might be a better predictor of life satisfaction in an area than its GDP or average household income. And earlier research by Onward has shown both a long-term decline in the strength of local community, and weak links between physical infrastructure and the social fabric of a place.
Investing in social infrastructure to underpin levelling up
This year’s Budget introduced a suite of three funds aimed at addressing regional inequality and levelling up: the Levelling Up Fund, the Community Ownership Fund, and the Community Renewal Fund (a precursor to the Shared Prosperity Fund). Encouragingly, these are not only capital funds for physical infrastructure investments, as one might have expected. There are revenue funds, and funds dedicated to increasing community-owned assets – investment in the everyday economies of places, and in boosting social capital. The Budget therefore signalled that addressing regional economic inequality is not just about addressing productivity gaps or funding physical infrastructure, but also about boosting social capital in the places in need of levelling up.
The physical fabric of places and the wellbeing of communities matter enormously in achieving prosperity. At a Bennett Institute event in March, Dame Julia Unwin shared her view that we will never recover economically from Covid-19 if we don’t recover socially. In short, people care intensely about where they live, and a run-down area that lacks opportunities for local people is a drag on people’s optimism and their ability to recover.
This is where investment in social infrastructure comes in, to support and complement investments in physical infrastructure. Places for people to meet, to mix and form the bonds of community, to be creative or look after their health and wellbeing. Power to Change supports communities to take on and successfully run buildings and spaces in towns and neighbourhoods, and these places are a critical part of the local social infrastructure. They are valued by the local community and serve that community’s needs.
A closer look at the experience of a neighbourhood in Grimsby makes clear both the role and importance of social infrastructure, and also that decisions about how to strengthen it should be made by those closest to the affected communities.
Levelling up in Grimsby: social infrastructure in action
Nunsthorpe is an estate in Grimsby with c. 2,500 households, but no secondary school, and just a few shops. It’s in the top 3% for multiple deprivation and just 49% of its 16-74 year olds are employed.
Centre4 is a community hub that has been at the heart of this estate for 26 years (for a flavour of what they do, see this short video). Centre4 is committed to the social and economic regeneration of the area - a place that has seen a number of centrally-developed neighbourhood regeneration schemes come and go. These have helped the area to varying degrees but have never fully addressed the causes of inequality. The inequalities that have been emphasised by Covid-19 existed before 2020, and are deep rooted in many places.
At Centre4, a response to the need for local people to get into good jobs was already underway as Covid hit – the establishment of an ethical recruitment agency, ERA employment. ERA is a socially responsible employment agency for North East Lincolnshire. It is community-led and provides a personalised service to help people into work, with all surpluses used to support community projects and the ERA’s ‘members’ - the people who are looking for jobs, who standard agencies might call candidates or jobseekers. ERA’s approach starts from the needs of the person looking for work, rather than from the needs of the business offering a job. So, if work isn’t immediately available, ERA supports its members to develop the right skills for local job opportunities through training, and to gain valuable experience and build confidence through ‘social action’ jobs at local community projects.
During the Covid pandemic, many members of ERA employment, including people who had been made redundant or were furloughed, got involved in these social action jobs: activities like shopping, digital buddying, gardening and collecting prescriptions for neighbours - all the while developing their own skills and confidence, building connections in the community, and collecting points. The experience is recorded and makes a useful addition to a jobseeker’s CV, and the points collected can be spent with local businesses or on further training.
As a result of the ERA approach, 60 people are now in temporary jobs, 12 of whom have been offered permanent employment. Another 18 people are already in permanent roles. Some of these are people who had previously been rejected when they had applied to their current employer, or were previously in retail and hospitality roles – sectors badly hit by the pandemic. ERA employment has helped those people see the strengths that they have, and has provided hope and opportunity. It has done this because the people running ETA can respond to local need and work within the local employment landscape, rather than having to respond to a set of centrally dictated themes or outcomes.
Local solutions to local issues – levelling up policies need to empower neighbourhoods and communities
In Grimsby, as elsewhere, Covid-19 has highlighted the fragility of the local economy, but more importantly it has also highlighted the strength that comes from local knowledge and connections. As a community business with a core team of community organisers, Centre4 listens to, and meets the needs of, the immediate area it serves, and also reaches out to people living in other areas of Grimsby, through social prescribing and advice services. This local knowledge and these relationships ground the actions of Centre4 in the reality of local people’s lives and create hope for the future.
Places like Centre4 demonstrate the power of strong social infrastructure and what communities can achieve, if adequately supported and able to make decisions about the best use of available funds. It’s a simple truth that not everything can or should be done at a national or even regional level. Communities know best what their needs and strengths are, and have shown that they can manage funding and assets to deliver services that are tailored and effective.
If Government has recognised that social infrastructure matters, will it now also see that how social infrastructure is created also matters, if we are to build lasting solutions to decades-old problems?
About the author
Ailbhe McNabola is Director of Policy at Power to Change, a charitable trust that supports communities to run businesses that reinvest profits into their local area.
About the author
Paul Gutherson is Programme Coordinator at Centre4, a community hub in Grimsby, north east Lincolnshire that has received Power to Change funding and support in recent years.