Mike Crowhurst is a Director at Public First. He leads its work on levelling up.
Buried deep within its 305 pages, some of the Levelling Up White Paper’s most interesting proposals were focused on communities.
Guided by the influence of MPs like Danny Kruger and Neil O’Brien, the document recognised that levelling up can only be delivered if communities themselves are given a greater role, and made a series of commitments on funding and new powers that could enable this.
For Conservatives, the case for directly devolving power in this way ought to be obvious. We believe that society, rather than the government, is best placed to solve problems and that people are at their best when trusted to make their own decisions.
We also know it’s effective: the evidence of decades of regeneration programmes, under administrations of all colours, shows that they are most likely to be successful where local people take a leading role.
But as my colleague Rachel Wolf pointed out on ConservativeHome recently, there is a big difference between coming up with the sorts of ideas included in the White Paper and ensuring that they make a real difference to people across the country.
As with so much of the Government’s Levelling Up agenda, when it comes to regeneration, the real challenge is not diagnosing the problem, or even coming up with policy solutions, but delivering them.
That challenge is particularly acute for neighbourhoods that have been the most ‘left behind’ both economically and socially.
Concentrated in the estates outside our post-industrial towns and cities, and on our coasts, analysis shows these places have both high levels of deprivation and a weak social fabric, with fewer opportunities for people to get involved in community life.
Polling tells us that people in these neighbourhoods want to take a much greater role in local decisions and lead change in their area. But lacking some of the necessary skills, the time or experience of navigating bureaucracy, they often struggle to do so.
In short, there is a gap between how Whitehall wants these communities to engage in regeneration and their capacity to do so.
And without further support, the Government’s plans for Levelling Up, for all their good intentions about empowering communities, risk passing these places by, as so many other initiatives have done in the past.
In response, a report published today by Public First sets out how we can bridge this gap.
It draws directly on the experience of the charity New Schools Network – where I worked for five years – and the hundreds of free schools it helped establish after 2010. A rare example of a government promise to empower communities delivering in practice.
Most importantly, it is based on the views of those living and working in left behind neighbourhoods themselves.
Our main proposal is the establishment of a new organisation – a Network for Communities – which is dedicated to helping communities organise themselves and interact with national and local government.
It would offer the practical advice residents need to create a plan for change and deliver it – whether that means having a stronger voice in local development, taking ownership of a community facility or working to together to crack down on anti-social behaviour.
It would champion the great community work being done on the ground in different parts of the country, helping others learn from it and building civic pride.
And, crucially, though it would sit outside of government, it would provide Ministers with feedback on how policies for communities are actually working – championing the voices of ordinary men and women in Whitehall in a way that the civil service is not set up to do.
Creating this kind of organisation is just one part of a wider shift we need to see in the government’s approach. Policy needs to move beyond simply making funding or powers available to thinking about how it ensures they are used effectively.
Too often, we see already prosperous places and communities do best out of a new idea becuase they have the existing know-how and capacity to take advantage of it, entrenching advantage whilst other places fall further behind.
It is now standard practice for departments to ring-fence funding so that policies can be evaluated. Reserving just a fraction of the money available for regeneration and using it for capacity building would be transformative.
Recognising that different areas have different starting points and that some need additional support isn’t just an issue of fairness but also one of delivery. Building the capacity of left behind neighbourhoods is the only way to ensure levelling up has a lasting impact in these places.
I’ve been lucky to work in Number Ten and in government departments, but the thing I’m most proud of is having played a small role in helping people around the country start the new schools their community needed. In doing so, their energy and passion created a legacy that will last decades. These proposals could achieve the same.