Levelling up requires ‘trees, trams and tricycles’ – report

Left behind places need ‘trees, trams and tricycles’ – and the community empowerment to provide them – rather than costly centrally-driven infrastructure projects, according to the latest contribution to the levelling up debate published today.

‘We welcome the government’s commitment to levelling up, but top-down investment must not focus on expensive heavy infrastructure rather than in catalysing bottom-up improvements to local places’, says the Commission into Prosperity and Community Placemaking .

‘We are convinced that neighbourhoods should normally come first and that government funding should be more about empowering than imposing’, adds its report No Place Left Behind.

The Commission’s vision of community-based regeneration is very different in tone to that of some northern politicians, with their emphasis on large-scale infrastructure such as the HS2 high-speed rail project.

Among 16 case studies featured in the report is the Back on the Map charity in Hendon, Sunderland, which focuses on tackling housing problems in the private rented sector. ‘The Back on the Map model now forms a sustainable and virtuous cycle, which will continue to grow in the years to come’ concludes the report.

At Tudhoe in County Durham the Livin Housing project transformed York Hill estate ‘from a place not to live, to the place to live’, while in South Shields the Cleadon Park area has been transformed by demolition and re-building through a partnership of the council, a private housebuilder and a housing association, supported by government grants and with community engagement.

But improved housing is only part of the picture. As the No Place Left Behind report says of Cleadon Park:

‘Deprivation remains relatively high, with the northern part of the estate amongst the worst performing, in line with the 20-30% most deprived neighbourhoods in the country. Educational attainment is still below average and there remains persistent worklessness and low incomes relative to other parts of the country.

‘To really shift the dial, the network that was so successful in delivering Cleadon Park needs to be expanded. Following an ecosystem model, it needs to bring in other partners, such as the local college, Job Centre Plus and NHS, to implement a wider joined up inclusive growth approach to early years, skills, employment, mental and physical health. Bringing together this broader agenda with a quality housing and place offer will create long-term sustainability, ensuring that Cleadon Park continues to be thriving and resilient.’

It is an interesting matter for debate to what extent Commission’s report differs from that of the Free Market Forum (FMF), co-chaired by two Conservative MPs, published last week, and what they may have in common.

The FMF’s rhetoric of a levelling up driven by low government spending, low tax, risk taking and self-help is very different from the Commission’s recipe of collective action at community level.

But some of the FMF’s recommendations, such as cutting regulation to encourage co-operatives, helping tenants to become owner-occupiers and removing barriers to self-employment may provide ground for a shared approach, while some of the community initiatives highlighted by the Commission may win applause from the FMF. The Tudhoe case study mentioned above, for example, is in the Spennymoor constituency of Dehenna Davison, one of the FMF co-chairs.

One further notable feature of the Commission’ report is that it does not see levelling up as a simple north-south issue but as one involving left behind communities in all parts of the UK. Its case studies include localities in Hastings and Chatham in the South East, Bristol and Watchet in the South West and Great Yarmouth in the East, none of which is economically lagging on a regional basis.

This is another reminder to northern politicians, including those in the North East, if they need it, that when (it is to be hoped) levelling up gets seriously under way under Michael Gove they should not expect the ‘asks’ for extra funding which are their constant refrain to go unchallenged by competing claims.