On levelling up

This blog is an initial response to the recent publication ‘Levelling up our communities: a new social covenant’ by Danny Kruger MP.

Let me start by saying that, on the surface, anything that raises the debate around the importance of community is a good thing. On this measure, the recent report by Danny Kruger MP into ‘levelling up our communities’ is a positive. Having worked for nearly two decades in parts of the country that feel much further away from Westminster than the 120 miles they actually are, I am an advocate not for devolution but for its inversion, subsidiarity. 

Start at community level and build up, identifying first those things that are best attended to locally by local people with their local knowledge, then those best done at a sub-regional, regional/city-region level, up to a national and international geography. From this analysis flow questions of resourcing, national standards, governance, accountability, transparency, and so on.  

However, dig into the detail of the report and, I suggest, it leaves much to be desired. Why is this the case? It feels like the author has had a Covid-19-sparked conversion to the power and importance of community which in turn becomes a political impertive in order to win over wavering voters. Let me share some of my concerns. 

My biggest frustration is with the underlying (but unwritten) assumptions and lack of principles. The report ignores the reason why we are here, largely a result of austerity and structural funding changes to the public sector. This has precipitated challenges for local authorities and the community sector in particular. It makes to account of both rising demand and falling funding. The reports proposal to make libraries the tech heart of communities bears no resemblance to the financial reality that has seen so many closed in the first place, or operated by volunteers in areas with higher social capital, and says nothing of challenges around rural broadband access. 

Where it does touch on resourcing, it amplifies and reinforces existing failings (such as Social Impact Bonds and the National Citizen Service) as well as structural funding inequalities. The Towns Fund and other small funding pots are dangled at local places through a pseudo-competitive process that largely pushes funding into marginal Conservative seats and undoubtedly cost far more to apply for, administer, deliver and report on than their original value. 

Few of the ideas in the report are new; in fact many are re-purposed with no acknowledgement (eg compare the family hub idea with Sure Start). Some are, of course, plainly political. But still, why put in a massive national effort to coerce those earning over £250k to give more money voluntarily? We already have a mechanism for doing this – taxation. Why not get taxation right, with its attendant checks and balances and accountability levers, so that we are all able to invest in this country in a manner proportionate to our means. To coerce through charity is surely a contradiction in terms and can reinforce notions of saviour syndrome.   

There is no structural analysis or conceptual glue holding the report together. The ideas resented read like a random list of activities. To me, this feels like an attempt to place sticking plasters over a broken system, which means they are just as likely to make things worse as they are to improve things. Ultimately it reads to me like a cobbled together set of old ideas mashed together to give the illusion of innovative policy. These issues have arisen over decades and, being complex social challenges, offer no quick fixes. 

Just as discouraging as the report itself is the response from the wider community / third sectors. From the blogs I’ve read the sector is drinking the kool aid with no critical analysis but a general happiness that someone in Government is talking about charities and voluntary groups. Which is, I’m afraid to say, all too typical of the sector in my experience. So again he’s pitching third sector against statutory sector. It’s the charity version of local government’s infamously apolitical response of ‘cautiously welcoming’ any new government initiative: welcome, because it means someone is thinking of them, cautious, because they are often not thinking enough. The unintended consequences often ripple out for years.  

As ever, it’s easier to be critical than offer an alternative so I would be remiss not to try and summarise some thoughts here (although many of my blogs explore answers to that question – what are the alternatives to the way we, as a society, currently do things). 

I would want to be bold by recommending an approach to structural and systemic reform (eg Govt is talking of a Devo white paper and local government restructuring) – the levers and opportunities are there, so let’s inform them, not leave them disjointed. But let’s do it in a way that makes sense for local people and not to suit political imperatives. 

We also need something deeper, different, less old power and more new power. Understand the system first, before seeking change. A new ‘social covenant’ set out in this report, based on a few hundred responses by the usual suspects isn’t going to get into the roots of our communities and hear what their version of a good life looks like, the barriers to it, and the enablers of it. Listen to people, if we have learned nothing else from Covid. Seed local conversations, find out what people want, what’s there, what isn’t. Be prepared for some hard truths. Work in the open, tease out the needs, ideas and energy for change. As it stands the paper is still framed in paternalistic approaches and mindset. 

Volunteering is a case in point (and I used to work in this space so it is very familiar). Of course people want to help out in a crisis, just like they feel togetherness and energy when their team wins the league, but is it ephemeral. As the energy dissipates, more people are made redundant, family members are ill, who wants to qualify for a volunteering passport then? The underpinning assumption is that people want to be active, to volunteer, if only bureaucratic barriers were removed it would release a latent pent up demand. I doubt that is true. People respond to a call to arms of a crisis but not day to day. Regular volunteering levels have consistently remained below 20% of the population over recent years. 

So what would my recommendations be? In work of this nature I’d argue it’s less about coming up with ideas so soon and more about the process to be followed. I think there are five things that should be at the heart of such a process.

  1. start with an analysis of the issue and the structural failings, however politically unpalatable. Shine a light on the elephant(s) in the room.
  2. widen out the conversation to hear from real people what they want/need/look for in the places they live – and whether they are actually attainable
  3. commit to a fair funding review: of local public services (including redistribution based on need), of the third sector (which is at best innovative, creative and responsive, at worst parochial and self-interested), of taxation framed as investment in citizens and places
  4. have an account of the different and yet complimentary roles the different sectors can play in thriving communities, as well as individual responsibility.
  5. do more than devolve from Whitehall, with attendant strings and agreements. Let local places and local people run their places. Recognise the need for local brokering of conflicting interests and the value of local democratically elected bodies to do this. 

Last year’s civil society strategy elicited an equal feeling of missed opportunity and it feels like this report has not really progressed the debate significantly. Perhaps, to finish as I started in offering a positive, we will come to see the value in this report not in what it says but in the outcomes of the conversations it seeds. Time will tell. 

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