Levelling up means devolving down

By Graham Duxbury | 01 February 2021

Those who characterise the current government as masters in raising our hopes only to dash them on the rocks of reality probably won’t be surprised at the recent admission that the long-expected and much delayed UK Shared Prosperity Fund is being pushed back yet again.

We now shouldn’t expect a prospectus until the ‘summer’ for a fund that will open in April 2022, a year behind schedule, and that will provide £1.5bn up to 2024 – less than originally anticipated. The 2019 manifesto committed that the fund would ‘at a minimum match the size [of EU Structural Funds] in each nation’, which amounted to roughly £9bn in the last six-year cycle and was estimated to increase by more than 20% if we’d stayed in the EU.

The get out of jail card in terms of the commitment is the addition of the £4bn Levelling Up fund, though whether this will be extended to provide ongoing compensation for lost EU funds beyond the current spending period is clearly unknown.

Local authorities have been told that they’ll be ‘in the driving seat’ of both funds and that a key priority is to ensure investment drives localism while tackling inequality within and between communities. The scope of what could be achieved with the new funds is broad – arguably broader than the funds they replace which predominantly focused on supply-side skills development rather than a more holistic approach to inequality. They may even, if we’re lucky, presage the return of long-lost terms such as ‘regeneration’ and ‘local sustainable development’.

The opportunity to use funds to fashion new solutions for communities left behind – and for marginalised and excluded groups within those communities – comes at a time when many councils are exploring new ways of engaging local residents in their decision-making and the design and delivery of local services.

One of the few bright spots of the last year has been the necessity to support new models of council-community collaboration to address the urgent needs created by the pandemic. New Local’s latest report Shifting the Balance spotlights case studies and pulls together recommendations aimed at embedding for the longer term the innovation and adaptations introduced as part of emergency response measures. Our own report on the experiences of community groups during the first lockdown found many examples of improved local partnership working. The advent of new funds will provide a platform for turning these isolated examples into widespread practice and improving the breadth and resilience of community infrastructure, particularly in areas where the transience of local communities or a legacy of distrust and conflict make this more difficult.

In making this happen, the role of local intermediary organisations is crucial. Local authorities are necessarily complex organisms and the need to protect public money and demonstrate accountability naturally requires a focus on probity, governance and risk. In a digital age, communities are increasingly aspirational, impatient and able to network and mobilise informally, but with the result that some voices may remain unheard and those who are currently excluded may be left further behind. Engaging non-aligned infrastructure organisations able to act as interlocutors – brokering community priorities with statutory policies and protections – can help foster understanding, manage risk and maximise inclusive engagement.

If we’re still thinking of ‘building back better’ – using recovery from the pandemic to tackle the issues COVID overtook such as climate change, but also brought to the fore such as health and racial inequalities – then we also need to use it as a springboard for investing in the spaces, organisations and infrastructure that can foster stronger place-based partnerships.

Graham Duxbury is national chief executive at Groundwork

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