The Conservative MP Danny Kruger has published his much-anticipated report on civil society: Levelling up our Communities: Proposals for a New Social Covenant.
Earlier in the summer the Prime Minister asked Mr Kruger to do a review which he submitted at the end of July. Since then, we’ve edged out of lockdown and into something approaching our previous lives towards the end of the summer, only to have more restrictive measures introduced which could be in place for the next 6 months at least.
The danger with any policy report or policy-making process at the moment is that by the time it’s announced it has already been overshadowed by ‘events’ and hence risks appearing irrelevant or at best badly timed. Just hours after Kruger released his work, the Chancellor had to confirm that there would be no Autumn Budget as expected, and made a special announcement to Parliament about another set of proposals to support the economy. So much for grabbing the news cycle!
Some good stuff
Anyway, what’s the first-pass verdict on Levelling Up? In terms of policy details, it contains some interesting stuff, including thankfully some very important elements aligned with ideas that the #NeverMoreNeeded campaign has been calling for:
- A Community Recovery Fund, building on the £750m in government funding for charities announced in April, using the £500m+ National Fund as an endowment, and delivered by a consortium of foundations.
- A Levelling Up Communities Fund, endowed with the estimated £2bn in stranded financial assets such as stocks, bonds and insurance policies, to support long-term transformational projects in communities, with community ownership at its core. This seems on the surface to be mostly a rebrand of the Community Wealth Fund.
Whatever they’re called, these are absolutely critical initiatives for the charity sector’s resilience and ability to continue delivering vital services, and it’s great that Mr Kruger incorporated them. But will the government take them up? The apparent lack of overt political support for his paper so far doesn’t inspire confidence, but we’ll see. In his response, the Prime Minister thanked Mr Kruger for his ‘comprehensive and hugely ambitious report’ and said a consultation would be forthcoming. Which could mean anything.
Some not so good stuff
As with any report like this, there are some other things which raise red flags and warning signs, as well as some gaping holes. The risk is that the good stuff will be difficult and expensive to achieve (and so not happen). The bad stuff will be easier and not expensive to introduce (for government at least), yet still may gain policy traction that damages our sector and organisations. The gaping holes may never be addressed because they were not properly considered in the first place.
For example, Kruger proposes that ‘organisations benefiting from public funding or tax relief should publish coherent and comparable data on their activities and outcomes’. Ok, but do annual reports published by any charity, publicly-funded or not, not already provide this? If not, why not? How should reporting be changed? And who pays for the changes and compliance? And what tax-relief, exactly? Although he says this should be proportionate, we all know these questions aren’t straightforward, and that any centralised, government-regulated formula risks causing more problems than it solves.
In another section on procurement, Mr Kruger gives his backing to payment-by-results contracts and Social Impact Bonds. Yet it’s been obvious for years that the former are just fundamentally terrible for engaging the kind of community action and ownership he wants to see, and the latter are the most ridiculously over-hyped example of the already absurdly over-hyped potential of social investment.
A gaping hole
It’s especially important to point out that although the report is called ‘Levelling Up’ it doesn’t say much about equality and human rights, or communities that are systematically marginalised or neglected and how they can access power or shape their own solutions. There is a short paragraph which says ‘Government needs to be very deliberate about ensuring that the perspective and experiences of BAME people are included in policy design and implementation’. This is correct, but the issue of inequality goes well beyond that and really should be woven into the fabric of the whole analysis.
Although Mr Kruger does loop in many new initiatives and citations to reference his ideas, many of the proposals are not really new – to such an extent that I experienced a profound sense of policy-meta-deja-vu upon reading through them. That’s not wrong, as old ideas can be good ideas – but we have to ask: what got in the way of implementing them?
Was that proposal from the Civil Society Strategy of 2018? Or the Conservative Party policy paper Voluntary Action in the 21st Century from 2009? Or the 2010 Conservative Big Society manifesto, or the 2015 one? Could it have even been from ChangeUp and Capacitybuilders back in 2006? Or…did it even hark back to New Labour’s Cross-cutting Review of 2002?
Mr Kruger’s proposals to sort out government funding data have been around at least that long – I know because that’s precisely how I came to work at DSC 17 years ago. It hasn’t happened comprehensively not because it wasn’t a good and necessary idea, but because there hasn’t been the political will or financial commitment to make it happen systematically over time.
So many of the other proposals are like this – on their face not wrong in principle, or potentially could be quite useful with some more development. But when faced with the way the current government operates, the amount of general chaos and uncertainty we’re experiencing in society, the worst recession on record and unemployment that is about to skyrocket, they seem quite improbable or just far away.
We are left wondering: where does not just the financial but the political capital come from, to really ‘Level Up’?