The levelling up fund felt like the light at the end of a very long tunnel for local authorities reeling from more than a decade of funding cuts. Now, reality is dawning.
With 525 submissions, rising inflation and a cost of living crisis, the bids will significantly outstrip the money available, which in turn won’t go as far as had been hoped. But this does not have to be the end of plans to restore local growth, local pride and chances for everyone to flourish.
The job of creating prosperous, inclusive places is the daily job of local government, with or without a funding pot. By leveraging what is already great about a place, working closely with the local community to understand priority need, and targeting engagement with the private sector, it is still possible to leverage the capital or revenue funding necessary to support the communities we love. The challenge just got tougher – but we can still do it.
The Levelling Up White Paper set out a plan for better chances in every corner of the UK. But the competitive process allowed little reflection on the most vulnerable areas, projects or communities. Central Government does not understand the most marginalised communities and their priorities the way that local government does. So, rather than feeling that serving those communities is entering yet another cycle of trying to do more with less, local government should seize the chance to build its own levelling up strategy by leveraging that close understanding of local communities, their needs and unique assets.
I have been delivering local projects for local needs for many years and know that the following template is effective.
First, create a shared and binding mission that will make your investment work for your place and your people. You probably had to put your bid together at breakneck speed. In my experience this means your technical evidence may be good, but you might not have had the time to engage communities and local businesses in a way that would build buy-in and a sense of shared ownership in local plans. Now is the time to bring together communities, civil society, business, and local anchor institutions like universities and hospitals to write your own roadmap to a better future for all.
Next, leverage the value of the economic case. The most marginalised are going to be deeply hit this winter – the signs are clear. The need for action is overwhelming and the effort required for crisis management is significant. Boosting growth via a fairer economy is a way to avoid future crises. While the cost is significant, the impact of stopping may be more so.
An example: In 2019 Waltham Forest LBC developed a business case for bringing the derelict, 2000-seat, EMD Cinema back to life as a venue for the community. The jobs created and skills and education developed through our ‘Community Impact Model’ demonstrated the value of investing in economic growth, heritage and culture far outstripped the cost to deliver the scheme.
Your levelling up bid has already started to make the case for change and how you can bring stakeholders together. Keep going.
Remember too, that you can find investment resources in your own portfolios. Investing for inclusive growth is part of a long-term commitment beyond temporary funding rounds that integrates business growth, renewable development, housing, skills development and more.
You could galvanise resources by integrating funding pots across these portfolios. Look to align resources like the Towns Fund, Shared Prosperity Fund, CIL and s106; consider selling a local asset to raise capital; evaluate Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) funding across the council to maximise the impact per pound.
Public property portfolios are often seen as a delivery tool whereas, in reality, they can be so much more. What do you have at your fingertips right now?
Delivery is key. It sounds obvious – but my advice is always to ensure your project is clear on the needs it is trying to resolve from the start in order to deliver the most valuable outcomes for your place, your people and your economy.
Councils lack resources and capacity to deliver which sometimes stalls schemes and is a cost. Working with communities can add capacity to make the change and share accountability and ownership for operations, thus reducing the strain on council resources.
Engage local entrepreneurs and community organisers and their ingenuity and passion for their place will help you make progress.
There are doubtless many more news columns to come on the Government’s levelling up progress – or lack of it. Meanwhile, the rest of us can just get on with doing it.
Andy Starkie is director/partner at Inner Circle Consulting