Organising and deciding

A Paradigm Shift. Are we about to enter a new age of community power?

Matt Leach, CEO of Local Trust, responds to Danny Kruger’s report for the government – emphasising the importance of social infrastructure and welcoming a new proposal to use dormant assets to level up ‘left behind’ communities.

If there is one positive to come from 2020 and the COVID-19 crisis, it is in the renewed sense of neighbourliness and community seen across the country. Within days of lockdown, mutual aid groups sprung up across the country and communities mobilised, often ahead of the more formal institutions of the state.

In the Big Local areas Local Trust works with, we saw communities rapidly rethinking plans, redeploying resources and repurposing buildings to enable preparation and delivery of food parcels to vulnerable people, provide laptops and educational material to support families with home-schooling and promote arts, crafts and local heritage projects to combat isolation and lift community spirits. If, at times, not all has gone as smoothly as it might in Britain’s national COVID response, no-one can question the scale, energy or commitment of what was happening in parallel within many local communities.

Danny Kruger’s report makes the case for working with local residents, community groups and charities at a neighbourhood level to create great places to live.

It is that inspiring, compelling evidence of the importance of neighbourhood and the power of community that runs through the report published yesterday by Danny Kruger MP Levelling up our communities: proposals for a new social covenant.  Produced in response to the Prime Minister’s invitation to analyse the power and potential of civil society and community to ensure the success of “levelling up”, he sets out a radical agenda, focused on providing local people with greater power, resources and opportunities to drive social and economic change in their neighbourhoods.

Working at neighbourhood level

The three elements of the “New Social Covenant” he describes are people, power and place: shifting the dial in favour of communities; providing them with the powers and resources needed to make a difference. If, to date, government “levelling up” has been about working with business and local government to rebuild the economies of our towns and cities, Danny Kruger’s report makes the case for a parallel focus on working with local residents, community groups and charities at a neighbourhood level to create great places to live.

The importance of social infrastructure in communities – places to meet and civic organisations to bring people together –  is particularly highlighted as  a critical factor in “making us healthier, wealthier and happier”.

Importantly, the review suggests that “the process of making spending decisions empower communities as much as possible”

This very much echoes our research on ‘left behind’ places – communities that have both much higher than average levels of deprivation and much lower that average levels of social infrastructure.

Lack of social infrastructure

These are often places in the industrial heartlands of the North and Midlands as well as coastal communities across the country. Whilst they often have a rich heritage and residents that are passionate about their area and possess a range of valuable skills and experience, they lack the social infrastructure which supports the networks, relationships and civic activity necessary to ensure communities are able to thrive.

A recent report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods highlights the extent to which during the initial months of the COVID pandemic these areas saw many fewer mutual aid groups established and received lower levels of charitable emergency funding to support community activity in response to the crisis. It also demonstrated the extent to which, even before the pandemic, lack of social infrastructure in those areas was associated with poorer health and economic outcomes for local residents.

It is clear from the immediate response of the Prime Minister that government sees this as a positive starting point for more conversations.

A new fund for communities

Perhaps the most significant policy proposal in the review is the call for a Levelling Up Communities Fund, which shares much in common with the proposal for a Community Wealth Fund advocated by a cross-sectoral alliance of over 260 organisations, mainly civil society but including some local authorities and private sector organisations – Local Trust was a founding member of the alliance and services it. This Levelling Up Fund would use £2bn from the next wave of dormant assets to create a national endowment for ‘left behind’ areas. It would be designed to provide a permanent source of funding for communities and ensure that every neighbourhood has “a better model of social infrastructure and neighbourhood organisation than they had before the virus.” Importantly, the review suggests that “the process of making spending decisions – and the projects which are actually funded – empower communities as much as possible” and that “how funds are allocated can matter as much as what is funded” – something that is consistent with the learning we have gained from Big Local nationally.

It is clear from the immediate response of the Prime Minister that government sees this as a positive starting point for more conversations. There is much here to welcome. In a period in which our lives are defined by COVID, this review is one of the first attempts to set out a clear and distinct vision for what might come next. In its focus on community it draws heavily on our recent experience of community mobilisation and in its flagship proposal for a new Levelling Up Communities Fund it proposes a programme that would have a potentially transformative impact well into the future.