‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’. This observation, from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, has often been applied to the challenges of levelling up.
Like unhappy families, ‘left behind’ areas are said to suffer from a unique set of barriers preventing their economy from growing and their communities from flourishing.
But we should question this conventional wisdom. In the past, successful reforms followed an established, replicable model of change. Free schools were based on evidence from charter schools that autonomy and accountability could improve attainment and breed innovation. Similar approaches informed Crosland’s comprehensive schools, Heseltine’s Development Corporations and Blair’s Sure Start centres: they all followed a consistent methodology that was proven to work.
We need to approach levelling up in a similar way. As the Levelling Up White Paper acknowledges, temporary funding and national policies won’t drive sustainable revival in places that have been losing momentum since the 1970s. ‘Left behind’ places need a consistent approach to revival that is based in evidence and practical to deliver. In some communities this change is already happening, with inspiring local leaders taking steps to turn around the fortunes of their places. But these examples are the exception not the rule, and the replicable lessons from these ‘bright spots’ are not well studied or understood.
This is the challenge that a new Onward programme – Levelling Up in Practice – will attempt to tackle. Working closely with communities, local leaders and businesses, we want to develop a prototype for levelling up, rooted in the local rather than the national. In doing so, we are bringing together and building on the research into how to restore our social fabric and strengthen economic opportunity that we have conducted since we were founded in 2018.
At the core of our research programme is a series of focused studies of communities across the UK. Data and evidence will provide the backdrop to these ‘deep dives’, but our focus will be on spending time in these areas to get under the skin of their challenges and opportunities. Alongside conversations with council leaders, chief executives, and college principals, we’re holding focus groups with members of the public to hear directly about their concerns and hopes for their place.
Our first visit was to Oldham, where one factor came up repeatedly when we spoke to residents – antisocial behaviour. In particular, members of the public told us they didn’t feel safe using the tram, with one female participant in a focus group telling us: ‘You take your life into your hands for a £3.60 return’. To adopt the ‘six capitals’ language of the Levelling Up White Paper, a lack of social capital was making people feel unsafe and undermining the value of the area’s physical capital – in this case, a tram line that only opened in 2014.
There will of course be local nuances to Oldham’s challenges, but tackling antisocial behaviour is not a novel challenge. Tried and tested methods exist from across the UK and the world to tackle low-level crime – including increased community policing and a zero tolerance ‘broken windows’ approach to identify and rectify public realm issues quickly, rebuilding pride of place.
We also spent time conducting research in Walsall, where the decline of the town centre was pinpointed as holding the area back – an issue which also came up repeatedly in Oldham. Again, this is a common issue across the UK in left behind places, where there are levers available to local leaders to take action without requiring central government intervention. In particular, the historic buildings in Walsall could lend themselves to a heritage-focused regeneration drive – possibly adopting the Heritage Trust model pioneered in nearby Coventry.
Local leaders have a strong track record of moving beyond Whitehall policy paralysis to get things done on the ground. Focusing on differences – the ways that ‘unhappy families’ are unique – risks missing the opportunity to develop and adopt a consistent approach to levelling up that builds on what works. Over the next few months, we’ll build on what we’ve heard across the country to develop this prototype methodology.
As we test and roll out our approach, we’ll be looking to partner with more places across the country who want to tailor the roadmap to their local circumstances. If you think your area could benefit – we’d love to hear from you.
Adam Hawksbee is deputy director of the think-tank Onward