Ever since the Conservative Manifesto in 2019 made plans to “level up every part of the country” the government’s flagship policy agenda, considerable energy has been expended seeking to explain what it means.
Community power can be the thread that knits together the levelling up agenda and connects it to people’s everyday lives.”

Ministers, Metro Mayors and MPs have all had their say. The Queen’s Speech used the term to frame the government’s entire legislative programme. The prime minister himself has been levelling up’s champion in chief, with various speeches devoted to the topic. Most recently, in the West Midlands, he said he wanted to “talk again about that project of levelling up and to define it more closely”.

In the minds of most commentators, the speech failed in its task of putting real flesh on the bone of the government’s defining concept. It did, however, reconfirm what we know already, while at the same time highlighting a vital missing piece of the policy puzzle.

At its most basic, levelling up is about tackling regional inequality, and it is here that we are starting to see a real change in policy emphasis. The priority for economic development funding has begun to shift, away from London and the South East towards our post-industrial towns. So from the Towns Fund and the Levelling Up Fund to new investment in transport and high streets: all are attempts by the government to make good on its promise “to put proper money into the places that need it”.

However, as the prime minister acknowledged in his Coventry speech: “It is not just that this country is the most economically imbalanced – it is the most centralised.” A serious reckoning with power is what will make levelling up different from previous governments’ attempts at addressing regional inequality. These have poured money into places but not done enough to ensure the investment sticks.

So far, the power part of levelling up remains unaddressed. It is critical that as new investment comes on stream, it doesn’t get left behind

A fantastic opportunity to protect much loved places and spaces, build community capacity, improve local economies and support community wellbeing".

There is a growing body of evidence for how community-led approaches do not just provide good social outcomes but are critical to creating stronger local economies. Different local areas have different assets and needs – so decisions about how to spend economic development funding are best taken closest to the ground. What’s more, investing in the underlying social infrastructure of communities is a prerequisite to building long term resilience and ensuring wealth remains within and spreads around disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

The experience of the New Deal For Communities (NDC) programme showed this. Those areas that secured the best long-term outcomes were those that invested in their local asset base. This ensured a legacy which exists today, in terms of successor organisations to the NDC.

Locality research has also shown how asset-owning community organisations act as local economic multipliers in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, by employing local people, using local supply chains and supporting people to become economically active.

In his first speech as prime minister in Manchester, Boris Johnson recognised that for levelling up to be different, it needs to devolve power:

“There is an even more radical shift we need to deliver this and I have seen myself the changes that you can bring about in towns and cities and regions, when local people have more of a say over their own destinies.”

Community power can be the thread that knits together the levelling up agenda and connects it to people’s everyday lives. Without this, levelling up will be another addition to the policy initiatives which invested money in disadvantaged communities but not in a way the people living there really noticed.

There are already some concerning signs that the potential of levelling up is being undermined by Whitehall’s centralising tendencies. The Levelling Up Fund itself is a good example: the fund offers vital new investment in the economic and social fabric of our places, but as currently designed it is too tightly controlled by the centre to truly unleash its potential for communities.

The recently announced Community Ownership Fund offers another case in point.  This fund is something that we at Locality have long campaigned for. It is a fantastic opportunity to protect much loved places and spaces, build community capacity, improve local economies and support community wellbeing. It should be a central plank in the levelling up agenda – one which provides investment and puts real power in community hands. But the detail of the first round of funding is antithetical to its levelling up aims. Tight timescales and eligibility criteria along with onerous match funding requirements make it weighted in favour of “shovel ready” projects and more affluent communities. The design of the fund will actively exclude the people and places which need it most.

Rather than continuing to control every policy, every fund tightly from the centre, it needs to let go, and put communities in charge".

So, as it starts to colour in the detail of its levelling up agenda, the government needs bold proposals on power to accompany the shift in spatial investment of economic development funding we are witnessing. Rather than continuing to control every policy, every fund tightly from the centre, it needs to let go, and put communities in charge. This is a vital bedrock that must proceed economic investment; building self-reliance and ensuring money doesn’t rush into places that have been overlooked for so long, only to rush straight out again.

In our Levelling Up Policy Paper, we present a series of opportunities the government has within its own policy agenda to do this and make community power the cornerstone of levelling up.

You can read our Levelling Up Paper here: Levelling Up Paper.pdf