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If he is determined to ‘level up’, Boris Johnson must invest in the social infrastructure of our most ‘left behind’ communities

Matt Leach, CEO of Local Trust, sets out why the Government needs to take notice of new research from Local Trust and OCSI and explains how the new APPG on ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods will work to improve the prospects for our most deprived communities.  

Boris Johnson has set out his long-term vision for the UK after lockdownHe has focused on large infrastructure projects – on building hospitals and schools and investing in the policeIn a nod to those that gave him his large majority, Johnson also commented that “too many parts of this country have felt left behind” in recent years and that it is his “mission to unite and to level up”.

But large capital projects won’t achieve this on their own. Local Trust’s experience of Big Local, and new research published today, emphasises that measures must be accompanied by investment in social infrastructure. 

That is, the places for residents to meet, the networks of public transport and digital connectivity that allow us to interact with one another, and the local organisations – youth clubs, art groups, and  small local charities that bring dynamism and richness to our shared civic life.  

Last September, Local Trust published research commissioned from OCSI that mapped social infrastructure in England. We looked at these factors – places to meet, high levels of community engagement and strong digital and physical connectivity – and ranked them on a new Community Needs Index (CNI). When cross-referenced with the Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD), neighbourhoods in the lowest 10% of both the CNI and IMD were found to have significantly worse socio-economic outcomes.  

These areas endure lower educational attainment, lower participation in higher education, higher levels of poverty and worklessness, and significantly higher levels of long-term life limiting illness compared to areas that rank similarly on the IMD alone. There is also a strong correlation between the CNI and the Brexit vote, and a significant proportion are located within the red wall constituencies that shifted to Conservative in 2019. This reflects the frustration of neighbourhoods who have long been ignored, which might be reasonably defined as the most ‘left behind’ in England. 

It is these areas that we should be looking to ‘level up’ as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Today we are launching a further iteration of this research, updated to include the 2019 Index of Multiple Deprivation. This work provides an update of the data on employment, educational attainment, household income and other issues around deprivation. As a result, the list of areas we believe to be ‘left behind’ has now increased from 206 council wards to 225.

In additiona deep-dive has been carried out into the effects of COVID-19 on these communities. It found that the COVID19 crisis has had a negative impact on ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods, and that it is likely to have severely damaging repercussions over the long term. The first couple of months of data demonstrate that unemployment has reached 10.6% in these areas, compared to the national average of 6.5%, whilst 1-in-4 of those still employed are on furlough. Many of these jobs are in ‘at risk’ industries, meaning that unemployment is likely to increase significantly once the furlough scheme ends in October.  

A large proportion of residents also suffer from poor physical or mental health. They are significantly more vulnerable to the virusmore likely to have suffered delays in the treatment of pre-existing conditions during the peak of the pandemic; and to have struggled mentally as a result of the long period of lockdown.  

These problems cannot be overcome with simple solutions. Issue specific funding – whether for schools, libraries or town centres – may provide a shortterm boost, but will only succeed in papering over problems for as long as funding is available. 

And whilst investment in boosting local economies is welcome, it needs to be focused specifically on the communities which have until now been ignored, those often located on the peripheries of our towns and cities. 

‘Levelling up’ must mean delivering sustainable change in  ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods. To achieve this, programmes must provide residents with support over the long-termand be delivered in ways that develop the confidence and capacity of individuals and communities, enabling them to rebuild the social infrastructure that makes neighbourhoods better places to live and work 

We have seen this approach achieve positive impact in the Big Local programme, launched in 2012, and targeted at areas that tended to lack strong social infrastructure and an engaged and active community. In one of the most radical experiments in community building ever seen in the UK, residents of 150 areas have been given £1m to spend over 10-15 years. Residents come together to decide how the money should be spent and are supported to grow in confidence and capacity to improve their neighbourhood based on local priorities. Often this has involved creating neighbourhood hub to provide a space for local groups and events, a first step in reweaving the social fabric that is the bedrock of any community. 

Over the last three months, in many Big Local areas, we have witnessed communities leading the local fight against COVID-19

Local knowledge and the networks of support developed over the course of the Big Local programme have enabled residents to respond quickly and effectively to the needs of their neighbours. 

For example, St Matthew’s Big Local in Leicester transformed their community hub into a food distribution centre, mobilising volunteers and supporting the most vulnerable through the first, and now a second lockdown. 

Over recent months Local Trust has been working with Parliamentarians from across the political spectrum to establish the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods, chaired by Paul Howell, MP for Sedgefield. The APPG will discuss the issues that ‘left behind’ areas face and design practical policy solutions to deliver long-term change. We hope that the work of this group will feed into Government plans to build back better after COVID-19 so we can truly unleash the potential of the entire country”.  

Local Trust believe that a community powered approach could lay the foundation stone for improving the prospects of ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods. This is why we are founding members of, and provide the secretariat to, the Community Wealth Fund Alliance, which is advocating for £2bn of new dormant or orphaned assets to be invested in such neighbourhoods. 

Local Trust is providing the secretariat for the APPG for left behind neighbourhoodsIf you would like to hear more, please take a look at the APPG website and join our mailing list here.