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Local economies Power and leadership

A brighter future for ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods

With the launch of the APPG for ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods’ report on levelling up, Simon Kaye, Director of Policy at Reform, sees important lessons for all parties as they prepare for a general election.

‘Levelling up’ is beginning to feel like yesterday’s promise. This is the seductive concept that created the conditions for an electoral landslide in 2019 and shaped an entire domestic agenda … two prime ministers ago.

A government department has been (re)named for it and a programme of regional devolution (more ambitious than any for decades) has been attached to it. A spiralling inflation crisis has seen communities take one step forward, and two steps back – if they have taken any steps at all. Levelling up has been delayed, reinvented, declared dead and rebooted.

The empowerment of local places has been playing out too slowly, at the wrong scale, and in too few places.

It would be absurd to suggest that nothing has been done, or that no progress has been made. Local leadership, in some places, has undoubtedly been strengthened. Local places have been given access to new funds to support community projects.

But this progress has been too contained. The Levelling Up Fund has been too closely controlled by central government, where Whitehall officials have little sense of the specific needs – or assets – present within particular communities. The empowerment of local places has been playing out too slowly, at the wrong scale, and in too few areas.

Opening a window of opportunity

We may not talk about levelling up in the upcoming general election as much as we did in 2019. But make no mistake: the same ideas will be at the heart of the policy debate. Despite their differences, both major parties have found a remarkable degree of consensus on the need to decentralise power and on the benefits of minimising the inequalities between places.

What we can expect to see in 2024 is not so much a contest of competing visions, but a dispute over approach. Everyone sees the need for change – but couldn’t levelling up play out in a more bottom-up way? Couldn’t a new principle be developed to ensure that those with the least can expect to benefit most?

Whatever it ends up being called, this debate will open a window of opportunity. The coming general election represents a unique chance to transform the fate of England’s ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods.

These are the areas that suffer from serious socioeconomic deprivation and ‘community need’. They are lacking in the connections, social infrastructure, and community mobilisation that help to ensure people can flourish.

Levelling up, in its current form, is unlikely to make a meaningful difference in ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods.

There is still time to design an approach that can make a difference in such places, and intervention now could allow a new version of levelling up to emerge. It is badly needed.

This is the message of a major new report that is being published today. A neighbourhood strategy for national renewal is the culmination of the inquiry into levelling up conducted by the APPG for ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods.

It is built upon substantial foundational research from Local Trust and Oxford Consultants for Social Inclusion (OCSI), and was informed by four full parliamentary evidence sessions, multiple dedicated research workshops and consultations, and over 40 written submissions from community groups, academic experts, and third sector organisations undertaking crucial work in some of our country’s forgotten places.

Reimagining the levelling up programme

The report’s findings are clear. Levelling up, in its current form, is unlikely to make a meaningful difference in ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods.

These communities face barriers when trying to access funds and have too little pre-existing social infrastructure to leverage at key moments. As it stands, levelling up incentivises both local and central government to pick the ‘low hanging fruit’ in order to meet targets.

A reimagined levelling up programme could produce results worthy of the name. This includes:

  • community ownership and the direct resourcing of community priorities
  • more granular devolution that brings power far closer to communities themselves
  • more participatory methods from councils and community organisers
  • more collaborative place-based approaches
  • an end to the exclusionary and wasteful allocation of resources.

Get this right, and we may yet look forward to a brighter future for ‘left behind’ places. This will mean cracking through the instinctive power-hoarding culture of Whitehall: an enormous challenge.

But the existence of the APPG is itself an indication of the extent to which this possibility, and the effort of its realisation, can transcend political tribes and differences.

We may be approaching the tipping-point for our ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods. The path of least resistance would now only see such places fall further back. And even a profound commitment to the current version of levelling up may not be enough to help. Our new report highlights some of the possibilities – and the next move will be crucial.

About the author
Simon Kaye

Simon Kaye is the Director of Policy at the think tank Reform, which provided policy support to the APPG’s inquiry into levelling up.