The government’s levelling-up programme to fight inequalities across the UK aims to reach left-behind communities and address local priorities. Based on their study of a similar programme, Zografia Bika, Adi Gaskell, and Caterina Orlandi offer a list of recommendations to the government. They write that the levelling-up focus must be on supporting social, rather than physical, infrastructure.
When the levelling-up policy was first articulated in the Tory party manifesto during the 2019 election campaign, it tapped into a real desire to reduce the substantial economic imbalances that exist both between areas and social groups across the UK. Of course, this is not a problem unique to the UK, with the United Nations themselves highlighting the growing inequality in many countries around the world, exacerbated by the COVID pandemic. This has resulted in a concerted effort among policymakers to try and create a fairer and more equal society.
After delays in the publication of a white paper to outline the UK government’s strategy to improve matters, the government finally fleshed out their plans in public on 2 February 2022 in a paper they described as a “moral, social and economic programme for the whole of government”. Central to the policy was the £2.6 billion UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF), which aims to succeed the structural funds that were available via EU membership.
The fund aims to be driven directly to so-called “left-behind communities” across the UK to address local priorities across three main domains: communities and place, support for local businesses and people, and skills.
For the past few years, we have been researching the effectiveness of a programme designed to do just that in deprived communities in England and France, and this process has given us some key insights into the most effective areas to target.
The INCREASE VS initiative was created by a partnership of nine housing associations and training providers in England and France. It was funded by the five-year £10.8M Interreg France (Channel) England programme (that has been financially supported through the European Regional Development Fund, 2018-2023), which aims to help people either find their way back into employment or start their own businesses and share best practices. By September 2022, INCREASE VS has helped to create 1,020 new businesses, while also supporting 1,136 participants into work. The programme service statistics by September 2022 indicate that of the 6,259 participants who began training, 16% started a business, 18% had a new job, and 7% had enrolled in more education.
Of INCREASE VS participants, 41% reported a change in work or education status. The programme directly targeted both the individuals and communities that have been “left behind” by globalisation: those furthest from jobs — the long-term unemployed, who are often ‘invisible’ and face various complex barriers to work.
Through our extensive evaluation of the programme, we’ve been able to identify a number of lessons that can help to drive policy interventions, especially so given ongoing fears that the government is cooling on its signature policy.
Local conditions underpin everything. The nature of this kind of work is that it is inherently local. It’s not enough to impose blanket policies from Westminster; the most effective interventions were based on an understanding of the local economy and the shortcomings in the local labour market. Project leaders were, therefore, able to respond accordingly.
Housing associations are agents of change. Housing associations are crucial figures in their local community, but they’re not always seen as key agents of change. This is a mistake, as they’re a long-term presence and often have more robust funding behind them than many local authorities.
Support needs to be offered in the right way. Our research found that the most effective support in helping people back onto their feet was non-judgemental and inclusive, responsive, interactive, and practical. Perhaps most importantly, however, it was continuous and ongoing. This is not a quick fix so support needs to last the distance.
This is a long-term challenge. Deprived communities represent difficult environments in which to make progress, so it’s vital that programmes are committed to long-term support.
Gardiens and local ambassadors have crucial roles. Career success is often a social endeavour, and the INCREASE VS programme had various roles for people to act as the social glue that binds communities together, while also helping to maintain shared spaces and other conviviality areas in social housing communities in the former case or peer-learning groups in the case of the latter.
Co-funding can provide continuity. What is needed is not a project but an institutionalised service that is ongoing as opposed to a ‘stop and start’ process funded by external bodies. This underpins the crucial role ‘co-investment’ can play in providing such an institutionalised service with sufficient sustainability to ensure this continuity occurs.
These lessons underpin the various policy suggestions we believe can help small, often deprived towns and communities. The following suggestions are all designed specifically to help small communities and therefore stand distinctly from many existing efforts that focus more on regional cities.
Encouraging returnees. Nearly all of the participants in our study had a sense of pride in their community and were sad that it had fallen on hard times. As a result, while encouraging outsiders to come in can bring many benefits, they can often be rejected as not being “one of us”. People who grew up in the community and then left can help tick both boxes, so encouraging people who left deprived areas for better opportunities to return can bring fresh ideas, connections, investment, and vitality to a region, thus bolstering both entrepreneurship and employment opportunities.
Developing extra local connections. Social capital has been identified as crucial to supporting deprived communities, but opportunities to develop this are often not present. Many of the participants in INCREASE VS had lived in their local community all of their lives and lacked those extra local connections, so it’s important either to attract returnees or otherwise support the development of broader networks.
Developing social infrastructure. Research suggests that 25% of “levelling up” investment should be devoted to so-called “social infrastructure” that will allow people to interact with their local communities and generate a sense of local identity. While this is not directly linked with employment and entrepreneurship, the value of a sense of place and stronger social networks will bolster both.
Tapping into net zero. The levelling up white paper makes explicit reference to the net-zero agenda, stating that the transition “could have large and long-lasting effects on virtually every aspect of the economy, including jobs and skills, infrastructure and technology, and investment and innovation”. INCREASE VS has shown potential for generating skills, jobs, and community-based energy, so this is an avenue that should be explored further.
These recommendations are designed to be both cost-effective and also locally driven. What’s more, they’re achievable in a reasonable timeframe, which is not something that can be said for many of the infrastructure projects that garner so many headlines. Instead, our recommendations focus more on supporting social infrastructure rather than physical infrastructure. If the government is to be serious in its levelling-up ambitions, then we hope they take our recommendations on board.
- This blog post is based on research about the impact of the INCREASE VS programme.
- The post represents the views of its author(s), not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
- Featured image by Benjamin Elliott on Unsplash
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