The Levelling Up White Paper is awaited with anticipation. We all need clarity – as the LGIU asked in our recent report: is it about regional disparities or inequalities within regions, is it just about the economy or does it address broader wellbeing outcomes? But does this lack of precision also present openings for influencing what is in the white paper and the response to it when it emerges?
Speaking at the Age UK Influencing Conference last week on levelling up, I (and other speakers) highlighted the difficulties for the third sector – and particularly charities and groups representing and working with older people – have when trying to gain ‘a place at the table’. The role of the sector has not been made at all clear. But it isn’t all over yet, there are opportunities for the sector which it (and local government) need to take seriously.
Levelling up so far doesn’t seem full of promise for older people (I am generalising here as older people are a very diverse group). Levelling up has been focused on employment, growth, reducing productivity gaps and physical infrastructure. The majority of the specific funding programmes will be spent on capital projects. New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) has estimated that as little as 7% of £8.77 bn of levelling up funding could be spent on addressing social needs through revenue spending.
What are the possibilities for the voluntary and community sector when the picture looks so forbidding? The sector has specific strengths and characteristics that the government needs if levelling up is to make a positive difference to people’s lives. There have been a myriad of comments, ideas and criticisms of levelling up. A constant is that the agenda has been over-centralised and lacking in engagement at the local level. There is little sign of localism – decisions have all been made centrally. The community sector is embedded in local places, understands them and is engaged with many different groups. The rapid response to the worst of Covid-19 emphasised how crucial this was.
There has also been pressure on the UK government to acknowledge – not just in rhetoric, but in future bidding rounds – that levelling up has to mean tackling inequalities and enhancing social capital. Plus, that there needs to be more consideration given to the value of social spaces and facilities where people come together when developing policies and programmes to tackle inequalities.
The LGIU has also argued strongly for tackling health inequalities to be central to levelling up. Health inequalities have been exposed and exacerbated by Covid-19. This requires a holistic approach, involving local authorities, health, the community sector and civic society. It means addressing the social determinants of health – such as poor housing, lack of access to green spaces, isolation, poverty, discrimination. Again, the community sector has a vital role.
For Age UK there is synergy here. Much of its work is around connections – between people, generations, preventing loneliness and isolation, campaigning for digital inclusion and transport connectivity. A recent poll showed there is a good deal of public scepticism about levelling up – and the most sceptical were the over 60s. Perhaps the government needs to think carefully about that. The centralised bidding approach to the initial funding of levelling up and the Towns Fund programme has been criticised for lack of transparency and objectivity. At least, having a much greater local focus – from councils and the community sector – could change these perceptions.
There are potentially practical ways for charities like Age UK to become more involved. Local authorities are being given capacity-building funding to support the development of their bids for later funding rounds. Building capacity could include the capacity of partners. Some councils may ask for ideas for future bidding rounds – can the sector contribute to these and to evaluating the ideas? MPs have to support each bid – local groups often have good relationships with their MPs. Bids will need data and evidence to underpin them, again voluntary organisations and national and local charities often have hard evidence. Local government is arguing strongly for much greater devolution of decision making and the community sector can be strong allies.
Getting access to funding for projects, though, can’t be the entire focus for local charity and community groups. There isn’t going to be a huge amount of cash, there are barriers for the voluntary sector in accessing it and there will be a lack of capacity for being part of bids for many groups. What is perhaps more important is working with others in local areas to influence local priorities, whether it is health inequalities, prevention or the local environment. Councils, just like the government, need the voice of the sector to ensure authenticity, local buy-in and positive outcomes. A dominant theme of the Age UK conference was that the voices of older people need to be at the forefront of their work: subsidiarity and its relationship to levelling up needs to be inclusive.
The other vital role is advocacy, locally and nationally. There has been a mismatch between the criteria for levelling funding and places with the lowest life expectancy and living well longer. That and similar contradictions and tensions in levelling up need exposing and debating.
Levelling up should be viewed from a lens that reflects the different experiences of people and places – where health and wellbeing have a sharp focus. The community sector is well placed to ensure this happens.