If you want to know if the Government are really serious about ‘levelling up’, don’t be too easily impressed by shiny new infrastructure projects — bridges across the sea, super-fast broadband and the like — important though those things may be. The real sign of a commitment to make a difference to those ‘left behind communities’ we have heard so much about is a less glamorous and more risky policy: namely, handing control of how money is spent to local people.
It sounds technocratic and won’t make national newspaper headlines, but the difference between having a central government spend money in your area and local communities getting together to improve their place (with support from central government) is everything. It’s the difference between having, and not having, creative agency in the world you live in. It’s literally ‘taking back control.’
Governments traditionally don’t like doing it, because you get varied outcomes and you can’t control everything, but it’s a risk they must absolutely take if they want to fulfil the promise they made at the election.
When you give local people real power, which means control over real money, extraordinary things can happen — like Stretford Public Hall in Greater Manchester. Built for the community in 1878, by 2010 it had closed and was falling into disrepair. In 2015 they came together to take it over and have painstakingly restored it into a self-financing beacon that lifts the whole area. It’s not only about jobs and the local economy, it’s about local pride.
Conveniently, there are already lots of pots of money that the Chancellor could hand over to communities at the stroke of a pen in tomorrow’s Budget. There are various funds that either already exist or have been promised — each with an uninspiring name that almost seems designed to say ‘don’t write about me’ — but which collectively add up to a game-changing amount of money.
There’s the manifesto-trailed ‘Community Ownership Fund’, which needs to become a reality so that more local people can own the important things in their area like landmark buildings and football clubs; there’s the High Streets Fund, which needs to be updated to prioritise locally designed schemes that can demonstrate real community influence on their plans.
There’s something called the Community Housing Fund, which was designed to give housing controlled by local people the power to tackle the housing crisis themselves. It’s a great idea but was typically under-invested: there is no further funding for neighbourhood groups after March, meaning projects are frozen with uncertainty. The Chancellor should renew it for another five years so this too can become a reality.
Then there’s the long-promised Shared Prosperity Fund, which kicks in to replace EU development money next April. I’d like to see the Chancellor commit to handing a quarter of the fund and future regeneration funding to neighbourhood level partnerships led by community organisations. Now that would be devolving power downwards.
So if you hear mentions of these various funds, don’t let your eyes glaze over and tune out; listen carefully for how the money will be allocated, and whether the government is actually living up to its promises and giving power away.