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Local economies

Our Chief Executive Matt Leach reflects on the difference White Paper proposals could make

Last week I was in Kirkholt in Rochdale, one of 225 areas characterised as ‘left behind’ as a result of a combination of both deprivation and a significant loss of social infrastructure.  Like many other such places it has a strong identity, and a deep sense of local pride – and on my visit I met some great people, determined to make a difference to their neighbourhood, and already achieving some notable impact.  Those efforts are needed – over the last 30-40 years, alongside economic decline, Kirkholt has suffered from the slow disappearance of places to meet and local community-led institutions which bring people together.  And, as in other ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods, this loss appears to be associated with social outcomes – health, education and employment – that are significantly worse than other similarly deprived communities elsewhere in the country.

It’s now a couple of months since the much-anticipated Levelling Up White Paper was published. Whilst – like almost everyone in the policy arena – we dashed off an immediate on-the-day response, the policy team here at Local Trust have had time to digest and dissect the measures contained in the 332-page document and have put together a formal response focusing on our core area of interest – the proposals relevant to community regeneration and neighbourhood governance.  Critically, we have asked the question, what difference will the proposals make to places like Kirkholt?

As you would expect, given Andy Haldane’s previous contributions to thinking around community, the White Paper is impressive in the depth of its analysis.  We particularly welcome its recognition of the value and importance of social capital and social infrastructure as a foundation for improving the economic prospects of neighbourhoods characterised as deprived or ‘left behind’.

In identifying social capital as one of the ‘six capitals’ underpinning economic growth, the White Paper provides a new lens through which to test policies and investment priorities – both locally and nationally. As Dan Gregory’s essay Skittled Out noted three years ago, the infrastructure that supports social capital has been significantly undervalued compared to other forms of infrastructure over recent decades.  Going forward, the White Paper signals the possibility of a new approach which will help ensure community is at the heart of government policy design and appraisal.  Something already evident in technical papers accompanying the White Paper outlining levelling up metrics.

The good news is that the White Paper doesn’t just focus on principles, it also sets out some important first steps towards implementing its ambitions around community and social capital.  The proposed Strategy on Community Spaces and Relationships, plans to strengthen neighbourhood governance and the greater emphasis in the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (the UK replacement for European Structural and Investment Funds) on investment in community and place have great potential to support community and civic renewal. We are also very pleased by the reiteration in the White Paper that government will consult on whether cash from the expanded dormant assets scheme might be used to establish a Community Wealth Fund and the recognition of the crucial role a positive decision would play in levelling up because:

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.

But, as the government itself has acknowledged, many of the policy prescriptions that the White Paper contains are embryonic.   The response we have published today discusses some of the ways in which we would hope to see them developed. We would particularly want to see:

  • A specific and early commitment from government to implement the Community Wealth Fund because of the contribution it would make to building foundational social capital and social infrastructure in the most deprived or ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods. The forthcoming dormant assets consultation would ideally confirm the government’s intent to move forward quickly with the fund requesting feedback on the detail of implementation. This would ensure that the communities that urgently need these funds would benefit from them as soon as possible.
  • Measures to build community confidence and capacity considered as part of the Strategy on Community Spaces and Relationships, including the proposed new Network for Communities (a report by Public First setting out the case for such a network will be published shortly). Such measures are needed to ensure that the communities that need investment most are able to access levelling up funds – as we know from recent research commissioned by the APPG for Left Behind Neighbourhoods, they have missed out on their fair share of grant funding for many years. This sort of capacity building support would also help underpin engagement in new and strengthened mechanisms – such as Community Covenants – aimed at giving communities more of a say in shaping their local neighbourhoods.
  • Regular auditing of implementation of levelling up funds to assess the extent to which they regenerate the neighbourhoods that need investment most and implementation of any policy changes needed to ensure this is achieved.
  • A proportion of UKSPF funding dedicated to developing community enterprise in these neighbourhoods.

These measures, and the others outlined in our response, are needed to ensure that the policy meets the government’s aspiration to level up and empower communities, spreading opportunity across the country, regenerating neighbourhoods and improving quality of life.

The great news when I visited Kirkholt, was that the local authority has just offered the community access to a new purpose built extension to the local library to use as a hub for activities and engagement.  It’s a great resource, in an area that lacks community spaces.  The group taking it on – Kirkholt Million – have been supported since 2012 by the Lottery-funded Big Local programme delivered by Local Trust.  Ten years on, they have a strong track record of working in the community, often in positive partnership with agencies such as the council and their social landlord to build local pride and improve their local neighbourhood.  Exactly the sort of ambition at the heart of the Levelling Up White Paper’s vision for other ‘left behind’ communities around the country. We need to ensure that local people in those neighbourhoods have the support they need to make the same positive change in their areas.


Read our response here

About the author
Matt Leach

Chief executive, Local Trust