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Local economies

3 questions for the Stronger Towns Fund

Policy director Margaret Bolton asks how places termed ‘left behind’ will benefit from the £1.6bn Stronger Towns Fund.

We know very little detail about the Stronger Towns Fund beyond the basics. We know that it will be a £1.6 billion fund, over 7 years “targeted at places that have not shared in the proceeds of growth in the same way as more prosperous parts of the country”. We also know how the fund will be allocated across the regions: £1bn routed via the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and £600m open to competition. LEPs will be key, coordinating local proposals and ensuring they align with Local Industrial Strategies.

However, 3 key questions about the Stronger Towns Fund remain unanswered.

1. To what extent will the Stronger Towns Fund benefit neighbourhood level activity?

We believe that the Fund should support activity at the neighbourhood level. The government’s Q&A on the Fund acknowledges how important this is. It says: “…some of our most prosperous regions have pockets of deprivation and neighbourhoods that have not fully benefited from the success of their wider regional economy.”

We know that without this very local focus investment tends not to reach the most “left behind” places, such as peripheral housing estates. Rather, if the geographical unit is the local authority, or equivalent, money tends to stick to relatively better resourced areas.

The Q&A implies that £600m of the Fund, at the least, will be available for “these pockets of deprivation and neighbourhoods”. However, this cash will be subject to competitive bidding and “the strongest proposals” will be supported. This reveals a basic contradiction, the areas that need the cash most are those with the least knowledge, skills and confidence in making funding bids. To some extent, it is precisely because they lack this capacity that they are “left behind”. So will the Stronger Towns Fund ignore the areas that need the cash most and concentrate on those that are simply best able to articulate their case, even though they may be less disadvantaged? And will the other resource available, the £1bn other portion of the Fund, be focused on larger geographies – local authority areas or whole towns?

2. Will communities be given any decision-making power?

The sub-heading for the press release states that the Stronger Towns Fund should not only boost growth but also “give communities a greater say in their future after Brexit”. However, the material published so far does not explain what this means. We would like to see communities not only “having a say”, but planning and commissioning the interventions needed to improve their local economies. We know from our experience of delivering the Big Local programme that communities can be trusted to develop their own responses. And, we know that locally owned and rooted solutions are much more effective than projects driven by organisations from outside the area. The questions here are; how will communities be given a greater say? And, perhaps more important from our perspective, will they be given more than a say? Will they get to decide how the money allocated to their locality is spent?

One response might be that what we’re suggesting would be too difficult for communities to manage. But we know that it isn’t. Big Local provides a model, and it isn’t the only example. International experience of devolving decision-making power and resources to communities is growing all the time.

People in areas that have truly been “left behind” often feel frustrated and powerless. The best way to turn this around is, surely, to give them the means and the support and encouragement they need to improve their prospects.

3. Will the Stronger Towns Fund support imaginative and sustainable micro solutions?

It seems clear that the main objective of the Stronger Towns Fund will be to create jobs and enhance skills, although there is a reference in the published material to restoring “pride” in areas. Is this, perhaps, a passing nod to the fact that solutions won’t be as simple as new job clubs or small business support programmes? Our research suggests that employment rates in many of the neighbourhoods we are concerned about have been slower to recover post-recession and that employment prospects are extremely scarce, more so than in other deprived areas. Further, often the employment available tends to be low skilled, precarious, and part-time.

It seems clear to us that the Stronger Towns Fund should invest in projects that provide imaginative and sustainable solutions. It should – just to give one example – support growth in the higher quality jobs provided by community businesses and worker co-operatives. ‘Building wealth’, Hazel Sheffield’s essay for Local Trust, paints a graphic picture of the qualitative difference between working in an Amazon fulfilment centre (my idea of work hell) and in a community music business. The extent to which the community music business is delivering benefits back to its community is striking. It is employing local young people as apprentices and running community music workshops. It is a joy giver as opposed to a joy drain. It is contributing to civic pride and enabling local young people to pursue their passion and fulfil their potential.

Across our Big Local areas we see many inspiring examples of communities striving to improve their local economies. Often the activity is, or starts, very small scale, such as the renovation by volunteers of the local parade of shops or the provision of micro grants to individual entrepreneurs to enable them to establish a new, generally one-person, business. However, it is these small initiatives, as they accumulate and potentially grow, that give communities the confidence to believe that things can be different and that they have the capacity to make them so.

A successful Stronger Towns Fund

At the moment, we don’t know the answers to any of our questions about the Stronger Towns Fund but are left to speculate. There has been no public consultation, understandable perhaps, given the genesis of the Fund and also because, presumably, government has yet to start the more detailed design work. It says it will be publishing a “prospectus”. Here we have set out our main three questions about the content of this prospectus. The answers to these questions we think will determine how successful the Stronger Towns Fund will be at tackling deep-rooted economic disadvantage in our most deprived areas.