For the three years since the Brexit vote, we have become used to political chaos. The last three weeks have now seen us lurch into full blown crisis; the worst our country has seen since the Second World War.
Boris Johnson’s choice of ‘left-behind towns’ may have also laid bare his election masterplan.
- Manchester Evening News

However, perhaps the most damaging consequence of our politicians’ collective failure to resolve the Brexit question has been the inertia. Austerity has been with us for a decade now. The public realm is crumbling. Many services are at breaking point – and the impact of those already lost is being keenly felt. But there is no space in Westminster for anything other than the seemingly endless Brexit saga.

A new focus on towns

Yet, in the midst of the crisis, a clear domestic policy direction is coming into view. We saw it emerge at Labour conference last year, with the party’s powerful ‘Our Town’ film. This focused on the austerity-driven plight of post-industrial towns in the midlands and the north.

The Labour MP Lisa Nandy spent conference season telling anyone who would listen that “whoever wins the towns wins the next election”. And it seems that as well as John McDonnell, this message was heard by our new PM’s increasingly infamous adviser Dominic Cummings.

As Boris Johnson said in his first speech as prime minister: “our post-industrial towns have a proud, great heritage – but an even greater future. Their best years lie ahead of them. So we are going to put proper money into the places that need it.”

But is it policy or electoral strategy?

The first step towards this is the creation of a new £3.6bn Towns Fund. And the 100 places that have been announced will be the first to benefit gives more than a clue as to the Conservatives’ electoral strategy for the impending general election.

Analysis by the Local Government Chronicle has found that “nearly two-thirds of the towns … are home to seats set to be major battlegrounds at the next general election”. The Manchester Evening News has come to the same conclusion, saying “Boris Johnson’s choice of ‘left-behind towns’ may have also laid bare his election masterplan”.

The “left behind” problem

“Left behind” is a problematic term. At Locality, we believe in the “power of community” – the vast reservoir of ideas, innovation, local knowledge and long-term commitment that lives in all our local communities. The key challenge for policymakers is how to create the right conditions to draw this out. So it feels like there is a risk that hiving off a certain cohort as “left-behind” creates an unhelpful and self-reinforcing stigma.

As John Harris explained in the Guardian, “left behind” was initially used to describe political neglect. Yet quickly it took on “a deeply condescending aspect, as if people in more affluent cities and suburbs were happily gliding into the future, while many towns were clinging to a sepia-tinted vision of a mislaid Albion and hoping to somehow get back there”.

However, it’s easy to see why the term has caught on in policy debates. You know what it means – and it does seem to describe an economic model that has benefited certain places a lot, without being too worried about areas who might have missed out.

Defining “left-behind” areas

So if policymakers agree that addressing “left behind” areas is the challenge, the first question that needs answering is a definitional one. What is, and what isn’t, a “left behind” area?

New research by OSCI for Local Trust (.PDF) has made a big contribution to answering that question. Rather than looking solely through the socio-economic prism of deprivation, they also look at which areas lack the community or civic assets required to enable them to respond. So they have developed a new “community needs index” which looks across three domains: civic assets (whether there are places to meet); connectedness (do residents have access to services, transport, jobs etc); and whether there is an active and engaged community.

The research finds that there are 206 “left behind” wards – which are in both the bottom 10% of the community needs index and the bottom 10% of the Index of Multiple Deprivation.

This focus on the ward level is particularly important. Too often policymakers think about regeneration at too large a geographic scale. They think about entire regions, cities or towns. However, our experience is that community economic development needs to start with a shared vision for local economy, built on a strong sense of place.

This tends to be strongest at a hyper local level, which is why our recent Communities in Charge (.PDF) report made the case for post-Brexit regeneration funding to be focused on the neighbourhood level. The OSCI/Local Trust research decided to focus on wards for the same reason, saying they “align more closely with community boundaries and are of sufficient size to cover locally recognised neighbourhoods”.

Is a Community Wealth Fund the answer?

So, once “left behind” areas have been defined, the question then becomes what the most effective way of supporting them is. Locality is part of the Community Wealth Fund Alliance – a group of over 160 civil society and private sector organisations supporting the call to establish a Community Wealth Fund.

The proposal is to create a new permanent endowment – from the next wave of dormant assets coming on stream (from bonds, stocks, shares, insurance and pension funds) estimated at valuing £2bn, and matched by FTSE 350 companies to create a £4bn Fund.

It would provide long-term funding, invested at the hyper-local level and with resident-led decision making. The fund would also include appropriate support provided to build community confidence and capacity.

A fund distributed along these lines has the best chance of making a lasting impact on communities that regeneration has tended to pass by. In particular, it’s a real opportunity to invest in community ownership – which our ‘Save our Spaces’ campaign at Locality has shown is critical to building long-term community capacity.

Join the Community Wealth Fund Alliance

The Community Wealth Fund is an ambitious idea. But if now isn’t the time for ambitious ideas, when is?

Join the alliance and find out more about the campaign over at the Local Trust website.

Join the alliance

Blog by Ed Wallis, Head of Policy and Public Affairs