Putting the public and communities in the driving seat
For all of the political tumult that has gripped the United Kingdom since the Brexit referendum there has been one indisputably positive development - a recognition that our social, democratic and economic settlement wasn’t working. In the years since deindustrialisation the UK had slipped into a vicious cycle where London, the South East and a handful of other cities were treated as the drivers of growth, innovation and progress and the rest of the country was expected to live on their handouts.
The result was that provincial towns fell into a spiral of neglect. Across the North and Midlands of England and parts of Scotland and Wales, young people were told that if they wanted a future they had to move away, high streets became threadbare and derelict, parks were left vandalised and local transport networks withered. The Brexit vote in 2016 was as much a rebellion by communities that felt overlooked and left behind as it was anything to do with the European Union.
It seemed politicians had got the message. Four years ago this week Boris Johnson launched his 2019 manifesto in Telford in the West Midlands with a promise to ‘level up’ the country. Since then, the policy has enjoyed extraordinary cut through with a level of public recognition far surpassing most Whitehall initiatives. A significant number of new Conservative voters say that it will be central to how they vote at the next election.
But if the diagnosis was correct, the delivery of levelling up has not lived up so far to its promise. The public are not unrealistic about the challenge and time scale of turning round decades of decline. They are also willing to give the Government the benefit of the doubt for lost time during the Covid-19 pandemic. But they still feel that the policy is at risk of becoming another broken promise.
But the importance of levelling up matters beyond party politics. Across the country, there is a pervasive sense that nothing is working in Britain any more - three in five Britons hold that view, three quarters say things are worse now in Britain than they were in the past, and only a third say they are optimistic about Britain’s future.
If levelling up becomes simply another broken promise it will do more than contribute to the pervasive sense that politicians cannot be trusted, but instead poses a threat to people’s faith in our democratic system as a whole. If people don’t think that their community is getting the investment, support and attention it deserves, they will either switch off or turn to populist voices who promise to upend the system.
What then can convince the public that levelling up is back on track? To answer that question, More in Common and Power to Change spent the summer talking to the public about their verdict on the delivery of levelling up to date, and what they want to see going forward.
In doing so, we have identified a series of five practical tests that should guide a levelling up reset. The public want to know that levelling up will have a direct impact on their neighbourhood and that they‘ll be in the driving seat of deciding what their community needs. They want to see their high streets given a chance to thrive - with more ways for community groups, businesses and elected officials to collaborate in what that looks like - rather than a top down approach from local and central Government. They want parks and green spaces, that became a haven to many during the pandemic, to be properly looked after and maintained. And above all, they want to make sure that any new investments are respected and protected for the community, with anti-social behaviour and vandalism tackled and deterred.
All of which is to say that the next stage of levelling up should be thought of less as a central government initiative delivered by local government, and instead an approach that combines top down support, funding and expertise, with bottom up community knowledge and enthusiasm.
Such an approach could finally unlock the full potential of the levelling up agenda and convince a cynical public that their concerns have not just been heard, but are now at last being addressed. There is a clear political prize for the party that can best demonstrate it has a plan to do this, but an even greater prize for the state of our democracy and social fabric for demonstrating the system can and does deliver for every community.
Seven in ten Britons (71 per cent) have heard of levelling up and more than two in five Britons (43 per cent) can explain what it means. Around two in five Britons (38 per cent) say levelling up should be either the ‘top priority’ or one of the ‘top priorities’ of the government- this prioritisation of levelling up commands strong support across the political spectrum.
The proportion of Britons who believe that their local area is neglected has remained unchanged since 2021 — stuck at 42 per cent. That more than two in five Britons describe their area as neglected has significant implications for economic growth, trust in politics and social cohesion.
When asked to describe Britain in 2023 in a word, the public’s overwhelming response is ‘Broken’. When asked to describe their local area in a word, the public’s responses are much more positive. The localisation (or hyper–localisation) that is at the heart of the levelling up agenda provides an opportunity to inject hope, optimism and a sense of purpose back into British politics and debates about the future of our country and communities.
The public are pessimistic about the country, but positive about their local area
Lessons should be learnt from the scrapping of the Birmingham to Manchester leg of High Speed Rail 2 (HS2). Most of the public (71 per cent) don’t expect the money saved from scrapping HS2 Birmingham-Manchester will be used on local transport projects - but there is a danger of the wrong lessons being learned from HS2. HS2 has never been a popular project and the public prioritise local road, bus and rail projects over major national infrastructure projects. Instead, the scrapping of HS2 should be a lesson in the danger of broken or undelivered promises - particularly whenever offering alternatives that voters don’t buy or think are too far off.
The next election will be a referendum on politicians' plans to fix ‘Broken Britain’. Alongside the cost of living, NHS and the immigration system, levelling up will form a core part of how voters make their choice. Around half the public (47 per cent) say the government’s record on levelling up will play a role in how they vote at the next General election - even higher for Red Wall (Loyal National) voters.
The perception of a failure to deliver levelling up is a key reason why the Conservatives are bleeding voters to other parties. When asked why they’ve switched to other parties, lack of delivery on ‘levelling up’ comes fourth after failures on small boats, NHS waiting lists and general government incompetence.
Labour is more trusted than the Conservatives to deliver on levelling up (holding a 19-point lead) - but more work is needed from Labour to show how they can deliver their own vision of levelling up. If Labour abandons the levelling up agenda due to its cautious approach to pre-election public finances, there is a risk that they miss the moment and show they haven’t learnt from the mistakes of previous Labour governments who were perceived to have neglected these areas.
From More in Common and Power to Change’s research, five tests emerge for how the public will judge the success or failure of any reset of the levelling up agenda.
The public’s expectations for levelling up are hyper-local. Those who rank levelling up as a top government priority are more likely to think of their local area at the hyper-local level. A hyper-local focus for the levelling up agenda can also be an opportunity to restore pride in local areas. To do this, however, the investment model needs to be the right one. There is much to be welcomed in the Long-Term Plan for Towns endowment style funding support model, but its scope needs to be expanded further.
The public think that when local people are given more of a say - change is more likely to happen and it is more likely to be the right sort of change. Seven in ten Britons think that local and national governments do not give residents and community groups the freedom to bring about improvements in their local area. Creative and novel ways are needed to empower local communities at the hyper-local level to work together to improve their local community.
A serious commitment to putting local communities in the driving seat means giving communities some power to control investment and shape local budgets. The public are more than 11 times more likely to think that participatory budgeting is a good idea (68 per cent) than a bad idea (six per cent).
Community businesses can be a key vehicle to drive forward improvements and regeneration at the local level. Almost half of community businesses (48 per cent) operate in the the 30 per cent of the most deprived areas in England, they employ local staff and community-owned spaces and contribute £220 million to the UK economy. The concept is supported by the public - four in five Britons like the idea of a ‘community business’ and see community business leaders as decent people looking to do good in their community.
For many people, nothing epitomises local neglect more than the state of their local high street. High streets matter to the public because they form the backbone of community life. While the challenges facing high streets from an oversupply of retail space, out-of-town shopping centres and online shopping are clear, so too is the centrality of the high street to how the public view the success or failure of levelling up.
More work is needed to imagine what the future of a non-retailed dominated high street looks like in communities across the country. Giving local communities the power to improve high streets for themselves through a community right to buy property on the high street, along with a buyout fund to support purchasing those properties, is exactly the kind of policy that can put communities in the driving and help them build high streets that respond better to their needs and expectations - and is one that also commands broad public support.
Parks and green spaces are what Britons say make them proud of their local areas. The public want a greater focus on local parks in their neighbourhood rather than just bigger parks in town centres. They want a return to basics which focuses on children’s play areas and tackling safety and vandalism before focusing on art installations. They also trust local community groups rather than local councils to decide what should be in local parks and green spaces by a margin of 2:1.
The public identify tackling crime and anti-social behaviour as the route to turning around their communities. Most people (54 per cent) don’t trust the police to tackle crime locally. The public tell us that feeling safe in your local area and not having to worry about crime on or beyond your doorstep are basic prerequisites for feeling pride in place, and necessary precursors for any successful levelling up agenda.
They can fund a park and put all this new equipment in, but if then somebody comes a week later and graffiti it, where does that money come then to replace it? They're trying to put funding to make it a better place, but if the kids then don't respect it, actually they're the ones that lose a really good service.
I think the little parks, the estate parks, that's where the kids hang out. That's where they go. They don't go to town park because there's too many adults, they hang out on the little ones on the estates, they're all together. But I also, I do blame them for the graffiti and the damage and everything they cause, but there's nothing for these young kids nowadays to do. And I'm not condoning what they do by smashing things up, but I think bring back youth clubs.
To meet these tests, Power to Change has devised a series of policy recommendations to better respond to the public’s hyper-local expectations on levelling up:
This report was commissioned by Power to Change and carried out in partnership between staff at More in Common and Power to Change. More in Common is grateful to Power to Change for commissioning this work and for their insights and perspectives throughout the research and analysis.