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Community spirit

Building a future for Mossley

As ministers present their plans for levelling up later this week, our chief executive Matt Leach reflects on what might they mean for residents of estates like the Mossley, seeking to rebuild their communities from the bottom up.

When I visited Mossley a few weeks back, the talk was not about the (then) forthcoming spending review. It was all about when they would get the keys to the long-mothballed youth centre on the edge of the estate. The community had finally – after five years and a change of political control at the council – been able to negotiate the purchase of the site, with ambitious plans to turn it into a hub for community activity, arts, and renewed youth engagement.

Local people have a strong sense of identity, pride in their area and shared community spirit.

The new community building is much needed. Mossley is not always the easiest place to live in. A late-1950s municipal housing estate on the edge of Bloxwich, a deprived area of Walsall, and sitting close to the M6 motorway, the estate has been identified as being ‘left behind’, with high levels of deprivation and chronically low levels of social infrastructure. It has always had a bit of a reputation – some of the local residents I met said that you could still find it hard to get invited to interview for a job if you were seen to be from “off the Mossley.”  At the same time, within the area you find local people with a strong sense of identity, pride in their area and shared community spirit.

Rallying around the Big Local programme…residents have organised themselves and bid to take on the community building standing empty on their estate.

One thing they have in common is a belief that the Mossley – over many years – had been let down. By the architects who designed an estate without sufficient community facilities to bring local people together; by the economy, which had seen the loss of the high-quality industrial jobs that workers from the Mossley were meant to fill; and by a succession of national and local initiatives which had promised to turn things round but rarely seemed to change much. Now, rallying around the Big Local programme, which puts funds directly into the hands of local people over the long term, building their capacity and confidence and putting power in their own hands, residents have organised themselves and bid to take on the community building standing empty on their estate.  Visiting Mossley, seven years into Big Local, there is a real sense that it was their turn to try to make a difference for themselves.

So, when the chancellor launched his Comprehensive Spending Review focused on large scale infrastructure and support for business innovation, for areas like Mossley, which sits in the constituency of Levelling Up Department minister Eddie Hughes, there will have been interest in the long-term impact the announcements promise to have in revitalising their local economy.  But also a keen sense that, whilst issues around economic infrastructure were being addressed, other key elements of levelling up – relating to the social fabric of neighbourhoods, the social infrastructure that underpins civic life, community self organisation, the stuff that helps sustain and build strong and successful communities – was still to be addressed.

Much of that, we are told, is due to be tackled in the Levelling Up White Paper, now slated for publication around the turn of the year.  And it is already clear that the government are taking the challenge of rebuilding communities seriously. Michael Gove, Secretary of State at DLUCH firmly linked the agenda to a Tory heritage stretching back to Edmund Burke whilst launching Trusting the People – a manifesto for “community-powered conservatism” authored by an influential group of 2019 intake MPs – at party conference. The government’s appointment of Andy Haldane to marshal Whitehall effort to deliver on the agenda came after his speech to Local Trust in July, which called for fundamental rethink and refresh of our model of capitalism based around local people – a model he called ‘community capitalism.’  And Danny Kruger, another key member of the team, set out a clear and compelling vision for the future of communities in his report to the Prime Minister last year.

Radicalism and ambition will be needed.

The Times has reported that later this week, the Prime Minister will host a cabinet awayday at Chequers to discuss levelling-up at which there will be presentations from Andy Haldane and Michael Gove at which they will have an opportunity to share their developing vision.  Five other secretaries of state have apparently also been asked to give five-minute presentations showing their department’s plans for levelling up and how they will be implemented by 2024, the planned date for the next election.

Alongside communities like Mossley, I am hopeful that both radical thinking and ambitious solutions will emerge from Thursday’s ministerial meeting.  That radicalism and ambition will be needed, not least because some of the solutions advocated may test the traditional short-term approaches to delivery that have bedevilled Government (and in particular Treasury) thinking in the past.

‘Left behind’ neighbourhoods will require short-term investment to be matched by longer term approaches that extend beyond a single budget or parliamentary term.

That doesn’t mean that short-term spending – whether on securing libraries, parks or community centres, the core elements of social fabric identified by Onward in their recent report – wouldn’t be a good start.  Reflecting on Local Trust’s early experience in Big Local, it is clear that an accessible community building of some sort – whether a community centre, library or other shared space – ought to have been prioritised as a “fast win” before getting into community building in many areas.  Where such a building didn’t exist, it was often hugely challenging to then get community activating going and often exciting stuff just couldn’t happen because “where would it take place?”.

But as Local Trust’s own submission to the White Paper set out, neighbourhood-level levelling up of the most ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods will require any short-term investment to be matched by longer term policy approaches that extend far beyond a single budget or parliamentary term.  Achieving sustainable change in neighbourhoods that have seen social infrastructure run down over many years, and where community capacity needs to be rebuilt if local people are to take on responsibility for those assets (rather than relating to them only as services delivered into their areas) requires sustained engagement and support.

Whilst the new community hub is likely to be a huge win for the whole of Mossley, as important is the work that has taken place over the last 6 – 7 years to support the local community in building up to the point where they were able to confidently bid for, take-over and run the building when the opportunity arose.  Research from the Covid Recovery Commission, the British Academy and whole host of other bodies, shows that whilst buildings are important, you need more than that for a successful neighbourhood.  As critical are the interpersonal relationships between people living in communities, and the community-run organisations and institutions that support and nurture those relationships; they are what enable neighbourhoods to thrive and succeed.

Matt Leach