Recently a trio of announcements that charities have been waiting months for finally turned up: the Levelling Up White Paper, the Government’s response to Danny Kruger’s Levelling Up review, and some more news about the UK Shared Prosperity Fund.
What does Levelling Up actually mean?
So far, it’s vaguely been about improving those areas of the country that have not been as prosperous as others, with a particular focus on traditionally Labour areas that swung Conservative at the last election. The general idea has been to bring prosperity to those places by building stuff – infrastructure – to boost economic development. But the economic focus has also been accompanied by a kind of political amnesia about the policy interventions or lack thereof which have exacerbated big disparities over decades.
For example, whilst the paper offers an insightful analysis of the relative lack of prosperity in some parts of the country, it lacks any data on what has happened to local authority funding and the benefits system over the past decade. Successive governments have drastically cut funding to councils, which has had a disproportionately negative effect on areas with the highest deprivation. Further, although it talks a lot about geographic inequalities, it says next to nothing about other types of inequalities that aren’t about where you live, and how these might be ‘levelled up’. With these key ingredients left out of the recipe, the levelling up pie tastes more than a little undercooked.
Finally, some policy meat on the Levelling Up bones
The paper itself is just shy of 300 pages: it’s part economics lecture, part policy smorgasbord, part open data and transparency evangelism – all with some odd historical references and academic concepts like ‘the contemporary Medici model’ (?) thrown in.
About halfway through we get to the policy meat of it. There are four key objectives: boosting productivity and living standards; improving public services; restoring local pride; empowering local leaders and communities. These are in turn supported by 12 ‘missions’, or commitments to be achieved by 2030, including on pay and productivity, transport, housing, health, education, and ‘pride in place’ (see Exec Sum xviii and p.120 for a list organised by each objective).
If you only have 10 minutes rather than 10 hours to read it, I’d recommend starting with these, then delving into the text relating to the topics you’re most concerned with (charity folk are more likely to be interested in sections on education, health, housing, and localism for example). If you’re really keen, there’s even a 43 page technical annex that goes into the proposed metrics for each mission in detail. Many of the commitments will be of interest to charities and social enterprises, even if the methodology is still a work in progress.
But let’s not get carried away – there’s a rather large elephant in the room. 2030 is at least two General Elections away, and we don’t know if this current government is going to last another two months. Legislation may be needed to enact many of the commitments, to say nothing of the political capital and funding required to really deliver them, which doesn’t currently seem to be on offer. Would a new Prime Minister prioritise this agenda, or want a fresh slogan and different plan? It all could quite easily go the way of ‘the Big Society’.
Some cause for optimism, and a warning
Since last summer, DSC and our partners in the Civil Society Group have been making the case that if levelling up is going to deliver for people, it has to include not just money and policy support for jobs and roads, but ‘social infrastructure’ too – public services that people need, and initiatives that can genuinely boost people’s control over how to improve their own communities. This is thankfully reflected in the paper, which also includes some interesting policy nuggets amidst the various commitments, stats and graphs.
Dormant Assets consultation
A Bill will shortly pass in Parliament to expand the existing dormant assets scheme, which currently repurposes funds form dormant bank accounts for social use. The paper notes that ‘The Dormant Assets Scheme will also be expanded to unlock up to a further £880m’ and affirms that ‘The UK Government will launch a public consultation in 2022’ which will consider ‘a new Community Wealth Fund proposal to distribute funding to local communities.’
Although there’s still no guarantee that a Community Wealth Fund will be created, years of campaigning by civil society groups, led by the Community Wealth Fund Alliance have produced some real momentum, and there’s an opportunity to influence and mobilise support in the coming months to deliver it.
UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF)
The UK Shared Prosperity Fund is intended to replace EU social funding post-Brexit. Further mentions of interest to charities include providing ‘community investment as part of the £2.6bn UKSPF, including new investment opportunities in community-led activity’. The top-level vision and objectives for the UKSPF have been aligned with those in the white paper, and were released simultaneously. Further consultation is set to happen in the Spring, and civil society groups have already been trying to influence how it will operate for some years, including whether it will sufficiently cover the funding loss from leaving the EU, and adequately consider equalities issues (the early signs are that it won’t do either).
Watch out for the government meddling with the Lottery – again
More ominously, the paper says government will ‘explore further collaboration between lottery funders for arts, heritage, sport and community projects to ensure that £1.7bn in National Lottery funding every year reaches the people and places that need it most.’ This echoes recommendations from Danny Kruger’s review last summer 2020, which called for a rethink of the ‘purpose and model’ of the Fund.
While that may sound uncontroversial or even beneficial, the track record of government meddling in what and how the Lottery funds is terrible. Ministers of all stripes can’t resist lumbering it with their own pet projects or causes, usually at the expense of the kind of community-based support that Kruger has advocated for. The charity sector will need to be eagle-eyed for encroachments on the Lottery’s independence and the level of accessible grants funding.
DSC will be responding to relevant consultations and leading calls to action on these and many other policy issues throughout the year – so stay tuned to our bulletins and @DSC_Charity for more.