The chance to reclaim communities starts here

By Ann McGauran | 22 March 2022

Will Tanner, the politically impeccably well-connected director of the centre right think-tank Onward, has a long-standing interest in the importance of communities.

Mr Tanner, who advised the Prime Minister Theresa May between 2013 and 2017 as a special adviser in the Home Office, and as deputy head of policy in 10 Downing Street, now leads an organisation that talks about the need for Britain to have a ‘new social covenant’.

Strong human connections and ‘a locus in a thriving place’ are key to improving people’s lives after ‘decades of social alienation and decline’, says The Good Life – a report published earlier this month by Onward.

So it is easy to see why he has taken up the opportunity to be a keynote speaker at New Local’s Stronger Things ‘Community Power’ event this month. Held at London’s Guildhall and online, this will be the second year in succession that he has been invited to talk at the high profile event. Among the other speakers are deputy leader of the opposition Angela Rayner, digital minister of Taiwan Audrey Tang, Mayor of Newham Rokhsana Fiaz, the first mayor of West Yorkshire and the first ever woman metro mayor Tracy Brabin, and former United States National Security Council member Fiona Hill.

Ms Hill, who became world famous after testifying at Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, has said ignoring communities is a national security issue. What does Mr Tanner think of her statement? He tells The MJ: ‘There is a lot to that, and the sense that she was trying to express.’

‘We started our work on what we call repairing the social fabric two and a half years ago now, specifically because we felt there was a read-across between the deterioration and fraying of community ties and the kind of growing levels of political polarisation that we were seeing in national political debates.’

But he thinks it is a longer-standing and deeper issue than just Britain’s membership or not of the EU. ‘What we found in all of our work is that there is a very strong correlation between places that have seen their social fabric decline and those that have weaker social capital. And the same places having higher levels of political polarisation and higher levels of voting for things like Brexit as well.’

He adds: ‘All of the data we have looked at suggest this is becoming more important to our politics rather than less. The levelling up agenda is in some ways a direct response to that, so I think Fiona had a point.’

He says he is ‘a great supporter of the work Adam Lent, Jessica Studdert and others at New Local are doing to increase Community Power and to drive a conversation about how we empower local places and local communities to take greater control of their own destinies.’

The approach is, he adds, fundamental to his own politics, ‘and it’s also very powerful at a moment where just after the pandemic we’ve been alienated from one another, and we’ve been isolated in our homes’.

Levelling up has long been a priority for Onward, whose alumni include levelling up minister Neil O’Brien. Mr Tanner believes that what the Levelling Up White Paper did very clearly was to set out the evidence base ‘about why Britain has one of the most unequal spatial geographies of any developed country, and the different things that have contributed to that over a long period of time’.

It also recognised ‘that this is a systemic problem’ and not one that’s going to be fixed by short term policy initiatives. He says he is ‘absolutely convinced that the 12 big missions that the Government has set out will start to change the incentives in Whitehall, as well as changing the structures, including ‘a much greater emphasis on devolved government through the mayoral combined authorities and county deals’.

He says he is delighted to see the Government ‘investing in hyperlocal governance and neighbourhood level controls – so you’ve got the review of neighbourhood level governance, and the commitment to expand and deepen parish and town council models’.

In his view this starts to change the balance of power ‘towards one that’s much more focused in places and creates some of the governance and the local forums for places to take charge of their own economic and social destiny’.

He sees this as an opportunity to reclaim community post-pandemic and to use this to ‘actually tackle some of the problems facing our country, whether that’s the decline in democratic norms, or the big imbalances within our economy’.

Local places must be at the heart of any political strategy to respond to the big trends that we face, he adds.

Returning to Stronger Things, he concludes: ‘I think the conference is a great opportunity to get into some of those issues’

  • Stronger Things will take place on 29 and 30 March 2022 at London’s Guildhall and online. It is supported by The MJ, TPXImpact, Power to Change, Norse Group, PPL and City of London. Get your free ticket at
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