Government’s levelling up plans risk repeating the failures of the last 20 years, finds new report

Date: 7 July 2021

  • New report from The Institute for Community Studies reveals that 20 years of local economic interventions have consistently failed to address the inequalities across the UK’s most deprived communities.

  • Report finds that over £50 billion investment has contributed to 0% average change in the most deprived local authority areas.

  • Reveals stark lack of involvement of communities themselves in decisions about local economic development.

  • Calls for better coordination of funding streams going into local economies, with community needs given top priority

7th July 2021, London – The Institute for Community Studies has today unveiled a landmark research report, Why don’t they ask us?, revealing that current approaches to regeneration and economic transformation are not working for the majority of local communities and their economies.

The report finds that 20 years of local economic interventions, including over £50 billion investment, have consistently failed to address the inequalities across the UK’s most deprived communities, leading to 0% average change in the relative spatial deprivation of the most deprived local authority areas. The research, which has been undertaken at the behest of communities through their priority-setting choices in The Institute for Community Studies’s research agenda; Safety in Numbers?, found that those areas that started the decade as the poorest local economies are still in the bottom 20%, whilst other parts of the country have grown and prospered. It found that intervention and investment has hitherto consistently chosen not to target and help the most deprived 20% of local areas because of a failure to recognise the potential of many left behind places; instead resulting in uneven and inaccessible economic models even where there has been economic growth.

In addition, community and local involvement was found to have been largely absent in decision-making and design of local economies – which have instead been led by national and government priorities and drivers, not local assessment of priorities and needs. The report also found that communities are acutely aware of the uneven pattern of investment into local authorities and the over-focus on urban areas, which has led to continued areas of severe deprivation even within otherwise affluent or improving cities and particularly in town or rural economies that are within close reach of cities.

The research by The Institute for Community Studies uncovered that over a quarter of Brits (27%) feel that the local economic interventions they had experienced in their local area had not worked, whether this was the building of new infrastructure or the attempted growth of replacement industries. For those dissatisfied with local economic interventions, nearly a third (31%) cited unfinished or abandoned projects of infrastructure or sector development in their local area, and a higher proportion voiced concerns that the intervention had been a poor fit for the community (65%). For those where a lack of intervention had been experienced, communities cited the absence of a clear strategy (57%) as the primary issue and an all too slow pace of change as the other major concern (43%).

Why don’t they ask us? makes three recommendations for policymakers to pave the way for different thinking about how the State and local communities can work together to break the stagnation for the most deprived local economies. These have immediate implications for the suite of levelling up funding programmes currently being developed by the government.

1. The creation of a new ‘Levelling Up Commission’, co-chaired by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Industrial Strategy (and attended by the Prime Minister’s adviser on levelling up), with strategic oversight of all levelling up funding and a specific mandate to transform the economies of the most deprived 20% of places in England.

Over the lifetime of the levelling up funds, the Commission would have a duty to report annually on how it had engaged local communities in priority setting and the expected cumulative impact on left behind places. In carrying out this duty, the Commission would be required to assess local and hyper-local social progress using a robust statistical methodology and to report social and economic growth on an equal footing.

2. Expanding the remit of LSPs where these still exist, and creating new local partnerships where they don’t, to advise the Levelling Up Commission about the best way to design and distribute funding streams to benefit local left behind areas, and to provide real time feedback on the success or otherwise of government intervention. Levelling Up funds would be prioritised toward those local authority areas that choose to participate.

These new partnerships should be modelled on the ‘power partnerships’ proposed by former LGA President, Lord Kerslake, in his 2018 Commission on the Future of Localism. In particular, recognising that regeneration is about more than national funding programmes, these partnerships should also have a remit to advice councils about local economic and spatial planning issues, including for example the agreement of local design codes.

3. Ensuring that a more equitable distribution of asset ownership is an explicit objective of the £150 million Community Ownership Fund and building opportunities for greater community asset transfer into other levelling up programmes.

Working with the National Lottery Community Fund, Heritage Fund and other place-based funders to advance the recommendations of the Protecting Community Assets Inquiry and put in place better support for sustainable community asset management.

Emily Morrison, Head of The Institute for Community Studies, said: “This report is uncomfortable reading and shows that we need a very different approach to supporting the most deprived places in the country if levelling up is going to realise its ambition. It is sobering how many local communities have experienced economic interventions that haven’t worked, or which are clearly not focused on creating benefit for the people who live, work and rely on these local economies. Moreover, how many people see the way policy has worked to have been to the detriment – not the support – of fairer and more inclusive local economies. This report provides practical recommendations because it is a real and urgent time for government to listen to communities – and act so our local economies can be stronger, more resilient and more sustainable and so ordinary people do not bear the sharp shocks of consistent failed transitions and decline.”

Why don’t they ask us? is part of a series of working papers examining how to fix local economies so that they work better for communities. The purpose of these reports is to demonstrate a new approach to mapping and co-designing stronger local economies for communities, through an approach that takes in the wider evidence of economic opportunities and challenges but which is also directly community-led. The first report, Discomfort, Dissatisfaction & Disconnect: Exploring local economic perceptions through peer research, explored local economies from the perspectives of local communities through over fifty in-depth interviews undertaken using peer research, giving a platform to these all-too-often forgotten voices. The subject was chosen as it was found to be one of the top five priorities for communities in the Institute for Community Studies’s research agenda: Safety in Numbers? which set out the questions that matter to communities, as told and prioritised by over three thousand people across the UK.

Notes to Editors

For further information, contact Sarah Hogg on sarah.hogg@youngfoundation.org or 07940281470.

Spokespeople: Emily Morrison, Head of The Institute for Community Studies is available for interview and commentary opportunities.

Download the reports: 

About The Institute for Community Studies

The Institute for Community Studies is a new kind of research institute, with people and communities at its heart. We believe that involvement of communities leads to better decision making on the issues that most affect them. We engage with communities and experts across the UK to identify and prioritise the top questions that research and policy need to answer based on what matters, directing research towards the most urgent and salient questions and amplifying community perspectives. We prove and improve our practice by understanding what’s working, and through systematic engagement with communities, the sector and experts, share where there are weaknesses and gaps in our understanding. Through a unique combination of methods, we are giving increasing weight to the stories, experience and evidence created in communities supported through our growing national network of community researchers. We provoke direct engagement with policy makers, business and those holding the power to change the experience of communities today through working with those who care about taking action. The Institute for Community Studies is powered by The Young Foundation.

About The Young Foundation: 

The Young Foundation’s mission is to develop better connected and stronger communities across the UK. We research in and with communities to increase understanding of community life today. We offer different methods and approaches to involve communities and grow their capacity to own and lead change. We provide tools and resources to support innovation to tackle the issues people and communities care about. We’re a UKRI accredited research organisation, social investor and community practitioner.