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Every community counts: The Levelling Up White Paper two years on

On the second anniversary of the government’s Levelling Up White Paper, Stefan Noble, Director and Head of Research at Oxford Consultants for Social Inclusion (OCSI), reflects on the development of the Community Needs Index.

Today marks the second anniversary of the publication of the Levelling Up White Paper – the flagship document that set out government plans to spread opportunity more equally throughout the UK.  

Key to the white paper was its recognition of the value of social capital, stating that: “For levelling up to mean something to people in their daily lives, we need to reach into every community in the country, from city centres to rural areas, in order to start to rebuild social capital and self-reliance in our most abandoned neighbourhoods.”  

Crucially, it also cited the Community Needs Index (CNI) as an objective way to measure the stock of this vital resource across the country.  

Two years on, policymakers and funders are increasingly recognising the importance of civic strength and capacity to improve outcomes in our most deprived communities.

Developing the CNI

In 2018, OCSI was commissioned by Local Trust to develop a quantitative measure of neighbourhoods with poor social infrastructure and low social capital. As part of this research, we developed the CNI, which measures the social and cultural factors that can impact people’s outcomes and life chances.  

The index was first conceived as an attempt to measure some of the processes Local Trust had been observing in the communities it was supporting through the Big Local programme.  

These were often peripheral areas with shared characteristics, where residents were consistently raising a lack of spaces to meet and poor connectivity as priority issues. Fewer local networks and lower levels of civil society activity were also identified as another barrier to communities starting to effect meaningful change in their areas.  

What makes the CNI unique is that it incorporates community and social challenges which have not been captured in the traditional deprivation metrics such as the Indices of Deprivation. These include poor community and civic infrastructure and low levels of participation and engagement in the wider community.  

It’s not so much about the presence of the ‘bad stuff’ – unemployment, crime, ill health or wider economic or deprivation challenges – but more about the absence of the ‘good stuff’ – an active third sector, well developed social networks and the places and spaces that underpin social fabric and community cohesion. 

Measuring community need

The CNI is arranged into three domains: 

  • Civic assets: This measures the presence of key assets of community value in the local area. These include youth clubs, libraries, public parks, community centres, swimming pools, and village halls – facilities that provide things to do and spaces to meet, often at no or little cost, which are important to how positive a community feels about its area.  
  • Connectedness: This looks at access to key services, amenities and employment opportunities and wider connectivity issues including social connectedness, digital connectedness, access to private transport and access to GP appointments.  
  • Active and engaged community: This measures the levels of active participation in community and civic life, barriers to participation, perceptions of social cohesion, and the strength of the third sector locally.  

The index has been purposefully designed to combine with other frameworks to identify need at a hyper-local level. It has formed the basis for foundational research into ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods. The research combines the CNI with the Indices of Deprivation to identify areas experiencing the dual disadvantage of high levels of socioeconomic deprivation and poor social infrastructure.

We know from this research that these places often experience poorer outcomes across a whole range of indicators, even compared to other equally deprived areas that benefit from a baseline of community strength.  

The research has also been used to inform the evidence base and work programme of the APPG for ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods – a cross-party group of MPs and Members of the House of Lords who are committed to developing policy solutions to improve the outcomes of residents, most recently through the group’s major inquiry into levelling up.

Influencing policy

The CNI has really resonated with policymakers and analysts and has become increasingly embedded across central and local government, as well as civil society organisations.  

It has influenced the distribution of a range of funding programmes, including the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport’s Know Your Neighbourhood Fund and Sport England’s expanded Place Partnerships 

The Index has also played a central role in informing the campaign for a Community Wealth Fund, which has made the case for long-term investment in social infrastructure at the neighbourhood level.   

At a smaller scale, the CNI has been used by local authorities in their investment planning and analysis to identify areas with high needs that have historically been lacking in third sector investment. This has helped to re-orientate grant funding and has informed transport strategies, investment in community champions, and small scale investment to support clubs and activities that bring people together.  

Looking to the future

Last year, the CNI methodology was updated following public consultation and engagement with key stakeholders across government, academia and civil society on how it could be strengthened and refined.  

With communities across the country still navigating the effects of recent crises – from COVID-19 to the cost of living – the CNI provides an accountable, needs-based framework, with scope to be used even more widely across funding and policy initiatives, to ensure investment is targeted to places with the greatest need.

Take a look back at Local Trust’s response to the Levelling Up White Paper. You can also read the Community Needs Index 2023 Methodology Paper, which details the improved approach to building the new index.

About the author
Stefan Noble

Stefan Noble is Director and Head of Research at Oxford Consultants for Social Inclusion (OCSI).