On levelling up (part 3)

Life’s lottery deems it that none of us have any say over the families and communities into which we are born. Some of us are luckier than others, given the wide inequalities in social and economic outcomes that manifest across the estates, schools, businesses, clubs and high streets that together form the different places we live. Addressing these inequalities requires structural change, and whilst there is some emerging rhetoric around linking government funding to need, the immediate signs are not promising. The re-emergence of that most arbitary of funding instruments, the area-based initiative, is rather like tackling the flesh wounds of Monty Python’s Black Knight with a couple of sticking plasters and a dram of scotch.  

In recent times we have seen the Partnerships for People and Place fund established with a £5m ambition of taking “a place-based approach to improving poor social and economic outcomes by empowering areas to develop locally-led solutions”. Notwithstanding the paternalistic inadequacies of this ambition, places up and down the country are working hard to develop solutions that are appropriate for their context despite the severe constraints within which they work. Isn’t that what local government does best? Most contentiously, the £3.6bn Towns fund has, according to NAO analysis, targeted marginal Conservative seats over those with higher levels of deprivation, prioritising Richmond over Barnsley and Hackney. The Community Renewal Fund offered 225 projects an average of a little over half a million each. Incredibly, 78% of project ideas submitted were unsuccessful. It isn’t hard to figure out  the total cost of applying for, awarding, delivering, monitoring and reporting runs far higher than the total funding pot of £125.6m. 

While such bidding processes might be congruent with free-market principles it represents an unhelpful expansion of that ideology into a domain unsuited for its application, one where cooperation and collective effort are more helpful in securing the sustainable development of places across the UK. Do we not expect that the places in which we are born and raised are supported not through arbitrary Government-sanctioned competition for scarce resource but through our collective investment? For in reality we have seen the complete opposite. 

Between 2010 and 2020 local authorities saw their funding from central government more than halved, the decade in which youth services, early years, community health, lifelong learning, library services, parks, and more disappeared from the treasured fabric of our communities. By 2015 JRF research was showing these cuts disproportionately impacted local authorities in the most deprived areas, with cuts of £220 per head compared £40 per head in the least deprived. This is both chicken and egg; people living under volatile and disadvantaged circumstances have seen their lives made worse by the loss of vital services which might have offered a lifeline; the loss of those services in turn pulls more people into vulnerable situations, compounding their situation and deepening need. 

In parallel the mechanisms to redistribute resources to areas of greatest social need have been removed. This has beenexacerbated by the move to council tax as the main form of revenue. In the 2000s Local Government had 85% of its spend determined by central government. By 2018 local authorities were drawing 60% of their funding locally from Council Tax, meaning that local conditions determined how much funding each local authority could raise. Areas with most deprivation – and therefore most need – are also the least able to raise funds from Council Tax compared to more prosperous areas. By 2018/19 Wokingham was raising 67% of its funding by Council Tax compared to just 24% in Knowsley. 

Compounded by tying council funding directly to the economic growth of an area, place-based inequality has been further amplified. Business rates retention, the new homes bonus, social care precept and others all favour more prosperous, low deprivation areas with relatively low service demand and strong economic growth. Areas with the most acute socio-economic conditions, where disadvantage is concentrated, where services are most needed and where the Brexit vote was the highest have been the hardest hit. 

As a result we have consciously and deliberately abandoned a swathe of communities, leaving them with a reduced resilience and a heightened vulnerability to social and ecological shocks. This was a perfect storm waiting to happen, one precipitated by the arrival of Covid-19 and which has cruelly exposed these structural fault-lines for all to see. Such a desperate lack of coherence in the way government funds local places simply can’t be overcome by scattering a few millions here and there to some of our chronically cash-starved towns and places through a fragmented set of area-based initiatives. The agenda of ‘levelling up’ in this respect appears to be little more than a political afterthought packaged as an opportunity for change, much like the CEO claiming to be the best placed to fix the crisis they themselves created. 

In reality, structural change is a necessity if we are to all live in places that are fairly and appropriately funded. But this needs a wider effort than tweaks of policy and small pots of funding. We need to shift our focus. It’s time to challenge the values and beliefs that have created these systems and processes which have failed our communities and driven up levels of inequality. Instead let’s work to put in place structures that ensure all our communities are fairly invested in for the future. Surely that’s the least our children can expect from us? 

This article was originally published by Public Service Focus magazine on the 24th February

Further thoughts on the Levelling up agenda also available in part 1 and part 2.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s