Local people know best where the opportunities to drive forward their neighbourhoods are – we need to put them in charge.
This Budget and Spending Review was a big opportunity to define the government’s flagship levelling up agenda and chart a new course for the country after the huge challenges of the last 18 months.
In aiming to inspire an “age of optimism”, the Chancellor has used the greater flexibility in the figures granted by the Office for Budget Responsibility to make significant spending pledges. Most notably, announcements on universal credit, early years support, youth centres and local government funding are a vital course correction after a decade of disinvestment.
However, when it comes to economic development, both the style and substance of the Chancellor’s speech reinforced a business-as-usual approach. Treasury control over the Levelling Up Fund may have enabled some good party political lines in the Commons, but it highlighted a centralising tendency that’s the wrong way to maximise local potential. What’s more, the focus in the main on big ticket infrastructure projects fails to give enough priority to investment in the underlying social infrastructure which is required to make investment stick for the long term.
The UK Shared Prosperity Fund was finally launched, but beyond a major new numeracy scheme, we still await details on the design. This Fund should present the core substance to the levelling up agenda, so it’s vital that it breaks free from Treasury orthodoxy to enable local communities to invest in their own priorities for the local economy.
The Community Ownership Fund is a brilliant opportunity to save local spaces and empower local communities and we were pleased to see the first 21 projects announced. However, we know this first round has excluded many of the most enterprising community organisations, due to the tight eligibility criteria. It’s vital that future rounds are more flexible and more developmental in order to support more of the transformative community ownership projects we know are out there, ready to go across the country.
The detail of levelling up has been deferred to the Levelling Up White Paper, which we now expect in the coming months. Community power can be the thread that knits the levelling up agenda together and connects it to people’s lives. Shifts in the patterns of economic development spending need to be accompanied by lasting shifts in power. With talk of new and improved devolution deals, these need to involve “onward devolution”, creating powerful new institutions at the neighbourhood level. Local people know best where the opportunities to drive forward their neighbourhoods are – we need to put them in charge.