Levelling up from the ground up

Helping neighbourhoods thrive means giving communities ownership of the buildings and spaces around them

Depending on where you live in England, there can be huge differences in your quality of life. This is down to some areas’ economic decline and low incomes, but also poor urban planning and underinvestment in social infrastructure. This government has made levelling up’ deprived areas a central part of this mission, but we haven’t yet seen any concrete plans for how they are going to do this.

Today the final report of the No Place Left Behind Commission into Prosperity and Placemaking is launched. It’s the culmination of more than a year of work, which the New Economics Foundation (NEF) contributed to, exploring the role of place – the built and natural environment – in this government’s levelling up agenda, through the perspective of community-led projects to transform homes, high streets, parks and streets across the country.

At 270 pages, the report is packed with evidence and policy proposals on how to improve so-called left behind’ neighbourhoods and enable local people to thrive. But in essence, the Commission’s messages are simple:

  • We don’t have to choose between investing in people or in place. We need both to support the country’s most deprived communities to recover from the pandemic, 11 years of austerity, and decades of economic and political neglect.
  • Communities themselves must be at the heart of this government’s levelling up plans. Only they know what makes their place special, what their community needs to make the most of itself, and how to reach the people and the places that get missed out by top-down regeneration schemes.
  • Community ownership of buildings and spaces must be the glue that makes new levelling up investment stick. If the community owns its homes, shops, parks and other buildings, then local people will always have affordable and tailored places to live, work, create and gather.

For people to feel they belong, there must be something to belong to. For so many places around the country, the community doesn’t have a college, a community centre, or a single public place where neighbours can come together to discuss shared challenges and organise shared solutions. But the report also shows the difference made to people’s lives when basic social and community infrastructure is rebuilt from the ground up:

  • The Good Things Collective CIC in Morecambe are working to transform a beautiful but empty and neglected building in local authority ownership into a community hub, enabling and showcasing local people’s businesses and creativity with bookable storage space, equipment, training rooms and workspaces.
  • Arches Local in Chatham have used their Big Local funding to paint murals, plant trees, provide meals and activities to local children, and inspire the community around a new Neighbourhood Plan to guide development in the ways residents want to see.
  • Dismayed by the failure of existing owners to make the most of local spaces and buildings, Hastings Commons have created an enclave of community-owned assets in the White Rock neighbourhood, demonstrating what can be done when homes, workspaces, parks and even caves are owned and managed in the community’s interest.

The only way for the government to achieve its levelling up aims is for it to transfer ownership of buildings and public spaces to community-led and owned bodies on a mass scale. The report backs the campaign for a £2bn Community Wealth Fund and recommends new grant funding, powers for local authorities to pass on low-cost borrowing to community groups, powers for civic groups to purchase land and assets at fair values – plus a raft of other improvements across taxation, planning, transport, housing and more.

At NEF, we’ve supported the commission as a partner, with our chief executive Miatta Fahnbulleh serving as a commissioner and many of our staff, including me, feeding in research and policy ideas. Initiated by the Create Streets Foundation and chaired by Toby Lloyd, former special adviser to prime minister Theresa May, No Place Left Behind also features commissioners from Local Trust, Power to Change, Legatum Institute, Create Streets and a host of housing and community organisations.

This breadth of political hues hasn’t prevented the commission from recommending big, bold ideas: a one-off transfer of local government debt onto the national balance sheet, a £1.3bn fund to turn run-down homes for sale on the market into not-for-profit ownership, and a community right to buy registered assets of community value at an independently assessed fair value, to name a few.

It’s exciting to be part of a policy platform with broad support from across the political spectrum, particularly given the wealth of evidence on the need for long-term, cross-party policies and intent if the country is to reverse entrenched inequalities between places. Levelling up needs consistency, community involvement and scale. We hope this report will help to steer government policy in ambitious directions as we await the levelling up white paper and spending review this autumn.

Image: iStock

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