IGP Stories

Levelling Up Communities: What’s the evidence?

Israel Amoah-Norman

7 July 2022

It seems as if the UK government has another plan up its sleeve. On the 15th July 2021, Prime Minister Boris Johnson in his speech outside 10 Downing Street spoke about levelling up the UK. Seven months later, Levelling Up the United Kingdom White Paper (WP) was published. A 300+ document which outlined a twelve-mission framework on how to raise and level the quality of life of everyone in all areas of the UK by 2030.

On the 4th May, I attended the ‘Levelling up Communities: What's the evidence?’ conference hosted by the Local Trust. Leading academics, researchers, and policy makers collaborated to explore key elements of the WP, and to understand what works in achieving long-term, positive change in deprived communities.

Andy Haldane (Chief Executive Officer at the Royal Society of Arts, and former head of the Levelling Up Taskforce) gave his opening remarks. He highlighted the importance of using a community capitalist model to achieve Levelling Up, and defined it as a society founded on civic institutions fueled by the empowerment of local communities. “The success of levelling up communities is dependent on both social and economic infrastructure. But there is still some way to go in measuring social capital and social infrastructure, and recognising its value.”

His closing remarks acknowledged that the missions were good but needed to be turned into metrics that could be tracked in real-time and at the hyper local level.

Nick Sharman (Local Councillor in the London Borough of Hackney and Chair of Big Local) pushed back in response to Andy Haldane’s remarks: devolving power is not enough and shows “that we haven’t learned the lesson that we need to remove Whitehall's grip on public spending”. In addition, there was a concern that in five years, there will be a different government, with different ideologies and programs. “We need to find a structured change to make a difference.” Throughout his rebuttal, members of the audience were shouting and clapping in agreement. Although I have never been, it made me think ‘Is this what it is like in the House of Commons?’.

Community led regeneration - what does the evidence tell us?

Levelling up social capital is not a short-term challenge. Will Tanner (Director of Onward) presented six lessons based on the analysis of regeneration policy spanning sixty years.

  1. Participation of communities is essential
  2. Upfront investment matters
  3. An asset-based approach is effective
  4. New civic governance can be helpful
  5. A focus on social fabric and not just physical infrastructure is important
  6. Investing in the long-term keeps progress consistent

For lesson five, Will Tanner gave an example of when he attended a focus group in Oldham to discuss with local people their opinions on the installation of the new tram service. The tram service had become a magnet for anti-social behaviour. Locals were afraid to take the service.

Oldham is on the brink, and the tram has pushed it over’ a member of the local community replied.

This part of the session led into remarks from Andy Burnham – the mayor of Greater Manchester. He referred to how the first Covid lockdown exposed the issues that had been continuously plastered over: housing conditions, transport, and mental health. He argued that all three were the foundations of society and needed to be secure to set the baseline for levelling up. He stated that deprived areas in Manchester do not have good bus services and the fares are expensive – a pattern across all areas in the UK, even London.

His speech made me think of the Citizen Scientists Twinkle and Terry who were involved in the qualitative data research for the IGPs ten-year longitudinal study. They researched deprivation in North Woolwich and interviewed local residents. They found that an important bus service in the area which linked residents to amenities had been removed. This reduced the residents' quality of life and increased isolation because the bus was a form of social interaction. This reiterated the importance of balancing social and physical infrastructure.

Community leadership driving local improvement

Throughout the conference, the benefits of local power and community-led initiatives were raised. Jennie Popay (Professor of Sociology and Public Health at Lancaster University) acknowledged the limitations of community led initiatives. She presented findings from a Community in Control study that investigated the implementation and early impacts of a programme called Big Local. Big Local uses funding (£1m over ten years) from the Big Lottery to give to residents in disadvantaged areas. However, resources provided to the communities were unequally distributed, putting more pressure and risks on disadvantaged people. Another limitation was that most initiatives had an inward gaze on community issues and failed to look at the bigger picture. The WP has a strong theme of social capital and devolving powers, but it is important to note that in some situations, this type of method may not be the most effective.

Raghuram Rajan (Professor of Finance at the University of Chicago Booth School of business), and Eric Klinenberg (Helen Gould Shephard Professor of Social Science and Director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University) concluded the final section of the conference. Both agreed that restoring a sense of community, pride, and belonging, especially in left-behind neighbourhoods was essential.

Raghuram discussed three important aspects of community: Leadership: it is important for people to find and bring talented individuals back into communities to create a body of community leadership. Engagement: social media has created connections. He gave an example of the SeeClickFix App used in Chicago where communities can identify areas that need attending to. Empowerment: power needs to be pushed down where it can be executed effectively.

Likewise, to Andy Haldane in his opening remarks, Erik stressed the importance of social infrastructure and it being just as real and important as other infrastructures. Social infrastructures such as libraries, parks, and playgrounds can bring people from various backgrounds together, and mitigate social issues. These infrastructures should not be taken for granted.

Personally, I am not sure about the government levelling up the UK by 2030. We are still recovering from a global pandemic that could resurface at any time, and the NHS have a backlog of patient prescriptions to deal with. It will be a challenge to cater to all. Not to mention that we are off-track in achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals which were set back in 2015. But we shall see, the UK may surprise me.

Israel Amoah-Norman is a Research Intern at the Institute for Global Prosperity. He has an academic background in Geography, and more recently, in Sustainable Resources.

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