Since “levelling up” first appeared in the Conservative Party’s general election manifesto in 2019, it has attracted both intense interest and scrutiny. Through this agenda, the government is seeking to address regional inequalities, revitalise our high streets and town centres, and transfer funding and powers out of Westminster through devolution so that decisions are made closer to the communities they affect.
But while MPs continue to debate the best way to do that, one solution is staring them in the face. Some 11,000 community businesses currently operating in England are already doing this vital work. As community businesses are locally rooted, they are well placed to understand and deliver on the needs of their communities. They provide community facilities and spaces for people to meet and build relationships, strengthening cohesion and tackling isolation, and they also create economic opportunities by regenerating their local high streets and providing good jobs and opportunities to develop skills and experience for local people.
Organisations like Centre4 in Grimsby and Granby 4 Streets Community Land Trust in Liverpool are promoting social and economic regeneration in their neighbourhoods. Centre4 is a vibrant community hub offering a range of resources and services for the local community. The community business established the Ethical Recruitment Agency to provide personalised support to its community, to help people to build the experience and confidence they need to overcome barriers to getting or staying in employment – presenting an opportunity for government as it seeks to tackle economic activity.
Granby 4 Streets CLT renovates derelict properties to provide genuinely affordable rent for local people and has created a community-owned space, the Granby Winter Garden, which runs a thriving community market and provides a place for the community to meet and strengthen social bonds. All of this was driven by local need and a collective vision for a thriving, vibrant community and sociable, safe and welcoming neighbourhood.
We know that high streets are a key prism through which people experience their local area and the visible signs of decline there can have a major impact on how people feel about the places where they live, but community businesses are also leading the way in re-imagining high streets for a sustainable future. With support from Power to Change, Back on the Map in Sunderland is piloting a Community Improvement District – a new model that gives community organisations and local people more of a say in town centre regeneration – and is convening a broad, inclusive local partnership to ensure regeneration efforts on Hendon’s high street succeed.
While some advancements have been made since Government published its Levelling Up White Paper last year, our new report suggests that levelling up is not having an impact in the minds of the public. According to our new polling, 66 per cent of respondents in the North of England feel that levelling up is not tackling key issues in their local area, and just 10 per cent feel that levelling up is having a positive impact. Interviews with community business leaders found that the agenda is too focused on capital projects – bricks and mortar – andis disconnected from the peopleit is supposed to benefit.
Clearly the current vision for levelling up does not reflect the needs and ambitions of our communities and Government must address this to see long-term benefit from its major investment in this agenda. With so many examples of how community businesses can and do work to create thriving places, promote pride in place and deliver the services communities need, it’s vital that they are empowered to do more. Basically, the government needs to provide the support and let them take the lead.