This year’s Spending Review is set to be a defining moment for this government.
Instead of short-termism and central control, patience and power are required to unlock places’ potential. We need to trust communities, and put them in control.

It was in his first speech as Prime Minister that Boris Johnson stood in Manchester’s Science and Industry Museum and announced his ambition to level up the country. Since then, levelling up has become the government’s flagship policy agenda; a mission to unleash the potential of all our places, rather than seeing our country’s success defined by what happens in London and the South East.

Already we have begun to see a shift, with the focus of economic development moving towards our post-industrial towns; places which have failed to share in the proceeds of prosperity for decades.

The task of the Spending Review is to build on this foundation and set the terms of long-term transformation. Doing this means not just shifting where government money is spent, but also seeking to change how. Instead of short-termism and central control, patience and power are required to unlock places’ potential. We need to trust communities, and put them in control.

The Community Ownership Fund is a brilliant opportunity to save local spaces and empower local communities. However, the design of the first round has been deeply flawed from a levelling up perspective, with tight eligibility requirements which advantage the already affluent.

Learning from levelling up so far

However, this is still far from Whitehall’s default approach to economic development – as the most recent funding streams government has announced show.

The Community Ownership Fund, for example, is a brilliant opportunity to save local spaces and empower local communities. However, the design of the first round has been deeply flawed from a levelling up perspective, with tight eligibility requirements which advantage the already affluent.

Similarly, the ambitions of the Community Renewal Fund – which was introduced in the March budget “to help places across the UK prepare for the introduction of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund” – have been undermined by the structure of the process. Judging from conversations with those who have participated in the process, it is too short-term, too large, too bureaucratic, and too risky to engage the rooted local organisations which are most able to respond to and meet neighbourhoods’ needs.

These two funds should both be driving forward the delivery of the levelling up agenda. But in practice, the way they have been designed appear to be holding it back. They share in the flaws that have hampered previous governments’ regeneration attempts: short-termism, centralisation and bureaucracy. They lack trust in the local areas they are seeking to empower.

The Spending Review has a huge opportunity to do things differently. It is time to move away from the big-ticket infrastructure and Whitehall control that have defined levelling up spending so far, and instead prioritise community power so that people can take back control for real.

Putting Communities in Charge of the Shared Prosperity Fund

The Spending Review has a huge opportunity to do things differently. It is time to move away from the big-ticket infrastructure and Whitehall control that have defined levelling up spending so far, and instead prioritise community power so that people can take back control for real.

It can do this by putting communities in charge of the Shared Prosperity Fund (SPF), the government’s long-trailed vehicle to replace EU funds for economic development.

This is something Locality has been campaigning for with Co-operatives UK, the Plunkett Foundation and Power To Change – along with communities leaders around the country – for the last couple of years. We are calling for at least a quarter of the fund to go directly to local people to invest in their own priorities for the economy. This can be done by devolving funds directly to new “Community Power Partnerships”, which would bring together councils and communities to drive regeneration in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

These local partnerships would bring together all the key players in the local, neighbourhood level economy: the local authority, local community organisations, small businesses, local traders, residents.

Neighbourhoods would be invited to form them according to a transparent and accountable distribution formula that targets the people and places most in need of ‘levelling up’. Funding would then be devolved directly so local people can define their own priorities for economic renewal.

On the eve of the Spending Review, we publish a new report which shows how putting communities in charge of the Shared Prosperity can be the fulcrum of levelling up

New report

Since we launched the Communities in Charge campaign in June 2019, we’ve set out our detailed design proposals for the SPF, told the story of what putting communities in charge would mean in Hartlepool, and shown how community organisations can be the solution to stubborn unemployment challenges.

Now, on the eve of the Spending Review, we publish a new report, Community Power Partnerships – How to level up for the long term, which shows how putting communities in charge of the Shared Prosperity can be the fulcrum of levelling up.

The levelling up agenda is seeking to make a serious shift in economic investment.

But the way that investment makes it out of Whitehall really matters. It needs to work with the grain of what’s happening locally. The Shared Prosperity Fund is the government’s big chance to do that. By giving local people and communities themselves the chance to take control of how this money is spent, the government can ensure levelling up really sticks. It’s time to put communities in charge.