Skip to Main Content
Local economies Spaces and services

Turning the tide in ‘left behind’ areas: Learning from 60 years of regeneration policy

Margaret Bolton, director of policy and communications at Local Trust, looks at the main take-aways of Turnaround, a new report from thinktank Onward supported by Local Trust and Power to Change.

Since being elected in 2019, the Government’s main priority has been ‘levelling up’. And although there is controversy about what that means and how success might be measured, one thing is clear, it is an attempt to address geographic inequalities across the UK. But, although it has been almost ten years since government last focused on this issue, it is not the first attempt. Previous administrations have given it attention in the form of, for example, Thatcher’s Urban Development Corporations and Blair’s New Deal for Communities.

There is a lot to learn from past schemes that have sought to tackle what is clearly one of the most persistent policy challenges, and a new report from Onward, Turnaround, supported by Local Trust and Power to Change, and analysed on Newsnight last week, seeks to do just that.

Starting with a review of six decades of regeneration policy, the report makes recommendations on how we might ensure the long-term success of future place-based funding schemes.

Go hyper local, invest long term

Onward’s analysis of what works is clear: the initiatives that deliver are the ones with long-term funding (at least 10 years), a neighbourhood focus and a local governance structure that embeds resident involvement throughout the programme. This is strongly evidenced by the evaluations of a number of place-based schemes, such as the Single Regeneration Budget and the New Deal for Communities programme.

Focusing the objectives of regeneration on improving the social and cultural foundations of community…is imperative if we are to really turn the tide within deprived neighbourhoods.

That being said, this new analysis is not blind to the reality that a community’s confidence and capacity will also determine their ability and appetite to get involved in improving where they live. This is why, as the report points out, it is essential to invest in supporting and enabling community leadership alongside bricks-and-mortar regeneration.

In addition, the analysis demonstrates that focusing the objectives of regeneration on improving the social and cultural foundations of community, in other words going beyond a strictly economic cost-benefit analysis, is imperative if we are to really turn the tide within deprived neighbourhoods.

Based on new analysis of New Deal for Communities programme data and using Local Trust’s Community Needs Index (CNI), the report finds that areas which fared better under the scheme and have continued to show improvements in the ten years since the programme ended, are those that benefit from strong social infrastructure.

This echoes the rationale behind the call for a Community Wealth Fund; a proposal now backed by an alliance of more than 400 public, private and voluntary sector organisations, and supported by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods. The Fund would be a permanent endowment investing in England’s 225 ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods over a 10 to 15-year period, with residents, with appropriate support, making the funding decisions.

From the past to the future

The report sets out a number of key recommendations that would provide a strong foundation for future regeneration policies aimed at turning around the most ‘left behind’ communities.

These include establishing Community Deal Boards: a group of residents from a defined geographic area who would come together to devise a long-term improvement plan for their local community, with a specific focus on developing social infrastructure in their neighbourhood, funded through the Community Renewal Fund or the forthcoming UK Shared Prosperity Fund. Community Deal Boards would thus embody a new institution, with the long-term funding and local legitimacy to foster community involvement in neighbourhood improvement.

We need more rigorous evaluation and consistent data on regeneration policies if levelling up is to be a success.

A new institution to capture best practice

More rigorous evaluation and consistent data on regeneration policies is needed if levelling up is to be a success, the report says. To achieve this, it suggests the creation of an institution with the remit of making sense of all the evaluation and review data of past and current schemes in order to disseminate best practice to support better outcomes.

Onward’s analysis is a helpful starting point in garnering knowledge about what works to turnaround deprived or ‘left behind’ communities. In piecing together previous efforts, we can learn from some of the largest government initiatives of the past, to hopefully set us on a path to better understanding how levelling up can be effective in the future.

It suggests that whilst this government may not be the first to attempt to tackle geographical inequalities, if it listens to the recommendations in this report, hopefully it will be the last.