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Levelling Up White Paper: Good on social capital, but detail on delivery yet to emerge

Chief executive Matt Leach responds to the Government’s Levelling Up White Paper.

If anyone was in any doubt as to what “Levelling Up” meant in practice, the 400-odd pages of history, data and analysis published today has probably settled that for the time being at least.  Unlike many policy announcements, this isn’t just a collection of short-term fixes, there’s also a huge amount of important background content.  Spanning Renaissance Italy to the Industrial Revolution, and drawing on official government statistics and external sources, such as Onward’s Social Fabric Index or Local Trust’s work on Community Needs, the White Paper is nothing if not exceptionally well-sourced.

There is a lot of content on fixing regional economies and even more on devolution of powers from Whitehall to local government.  But from the point of view of those of us interested in addressing challenges facing disadvantaged communities at a neighbourhood level, it is fair to say there isn’t much in the way of new announcements in what came out today, or in the accompanying response to Danny Kruger’s report to the Prime Minister on community levelling-up.  Indeed, amendments to the Dormant Assets Bill at the beginning of this week, confirming consultation on a Community Wealth Fund may in time prove far more significant for many of our most ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods.

Nevertheless, there is enough content in the paper to interest those looking for signals as to the long-term direction of government policy, and some statements that will be positively welcomed.  Not least the statement that:

“Community-led regeneration cannot be achieved with a stop-start funding stream that first builds hope, then destroys it, leaving people less optimistic and trusting, and feeling more disempowered than ever.” (p.xxv, Levelling Up White Paper).

Social capital [is] a critical component of a successful community an economy.

There is also a commitment that the UKSPF will have a clear community element:

“The UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF) will provide resource focused investment to support people, boost pride in place and strengthen communities.” (p.128, Levelling Up White Paper).

And that these will include:

“new investment opportunities in community-led activity. The UK Government will support places in every corner of the UK to combine strategic investments with community and neighbourhood activity, including in the places where social capital is weakest.” (p.217, levelling Up White Paper).

And there is welcome recognition of social capital as a critical component of a successful community an economy, something Levelling Up Taskforce leader Andy Haldane has spoken about in the past.

“Twenty years ago, Robert Putnam described the crucial role played by the loss of trust – social capital – in explaining the decline in US communities. Subsequent research has shown that depleted social capital is a cause as well as a reflection of the under-performance of places. For example, low levels of community cooperation and trust reduce the attraction of places as a destination for people, business and finance.” (p.45, Levelling Up White Paper).

Indeed, social capital is identified – alongside physical and financial capital – as amongst the six critical pillars against which disparities in geographical performance can be measured.

See p. 88 of the White Paper.

However, it acknowledges that social capital isn’t always equally spread and that, implicitly, that this needs to be addressed:

“Communities also need strong community infrastructure and social capital, but this is lacking in many places and tends to be particularly weak in the most deprived places.” (p.214, Levelling Up White Paper).

We all need places where we connect, make friends, build relationships, cultivate a sense of neighbourliness, and build social capital.

And it highlights the extent to which at times these disparities are most obvious at a hyper-local level:

“Urban areas and coastal towns suffer disproportionately from crime, while places with particularly high levels of deprivation, such as former mining communities, outlying urban estates and seaside towns have the highest levels of community need and poor opportunities for the people who grow up there. These disparities are often larger within towns, counties or regions than between them. They are hyper-local and pockets of affluence and deprivation may exist in the same district.” (p.xv, Levelling Up White Paper).

But if social capital is an important measure against which progress on levelling up is measured and not all areas are equal, the White Paper is less clear on what it is going to do about it, particularly in those communities and neighbourhoods where social infrastructure – the places to meet and organisations that bring people together – have fallen into disrepair.

As human beings, we have a basic need for connection and a sense of belonging

More than anything, we know that social capital is driven by human connection. We all need places where we connect, make friends, build relationships, cultivate a sense of neighbourliness, and build social capital.  As human beings, we have a basic need for connection and a sense of belonging, and we gain this in large measure through institutions that reflect our collective local identities whether that be community centres, rugby clubs or pubs. This isn’t just anecdotal, there is research to back it up. The American Enterprise Institute has demonstrated the importance of social connection and place.

Local social and civic institutions are the fundamental engines of social capital, and we know that individuals living in communities with higher levels of social capital have, on average, better outcomes across a range of indicators including employment and health and wellbeing. What is more, investing in them pays back, both to HM Treasury in fiscal terms and to local communities in terms of enhanced wellbeing.

we look forward to working with Government and communities as these policies are developed over coming months

And whilst the White Paper is strong on addressing disparities in civic institutions at the level of city, town or high street, it is much lighter on how it aims to tackle the sorts of challenges it recognises are faced by peripheral communities on the edge of towns and cities and in coastal areas who have often seen their social infrastructure decline significantly over recent decades; the shared workplace, trade unions, pubs, working men’s clubs and assembly rooms that defined community identity and fostered local pride.

The White Paper makes clear that for this, we will need to wait on a new Strategy for Community Spaces and Relationships, apparently due later this year. Whilst somewhat strangely titled, the content list for the strategy looks pretty solid:

“The [Community Spaces and Relationships] strategy will be underpinned by the following guiding principles:

  1. community power – making it easier for local people and community groups to come together to set local priorities and shape their neighbourhoods;
  2. understanding ‘what works’ – building the evidence base to better understand how to support communities and put them in the driving seat to level up;
  3. listening to communities – engaging with communities, local government and civil society to identify priorities, the assets that matter to local places, and the policies and actions needed to strengthen community infrastructure; and
  4. every community matters – reaching out to engage with the most disconnected communities, and ensuring funding reaches those most in need.” (p.214, Levelling Up White Paper).

Much of this reflects priorities addressed in Local Trust’s submission to government on levelling-up from last year, and we look forward to working with Government and communities as these policies are developed over coming months, alongside proposals for a Community Wealth Fund ahead of the forthcoming consultation following Royal Assent to the Dormant Assets Bill.