This week, criticism of the ‘levelling up' agenda has surfaced from the Industrial Strategy Council. Our Deputy CEO Genevieve Maitland Hudson shares why we need to give more thought to what the 'hands of local communities' means in practice.
There is a longstanding strand of conservatism that likes two things that are also intermittently popular on the left: community action and employee ownership.
That strand of conservatism appears resurgent and seems to be having, at least some, influence on policy in the UK at the moment. As so often, that doesn’t mean this strand is dominant overall, or that it is informing coherent and consistent post-Covid economic and social planning. But all the same, there it is, and as of this week with its own think tank The New Social Covenant Unit.
The New Social Covenant Unit’s community propositions are an interesting merging of tradition, nostalgia, and communitarian philosophy. Newly-appointed director Imogen Sinclair wrote a report for the Centre for Social Justice on ‘community capital’ that draws on Sen and Nussbaum’s capability approach. This report focuses on the far-reaching potential of purposeful participation to expand people’s ability to enjoy life and participate fully in it. Some of the recommendations – endowed youth centres and community asset transfers – would be very welcome in the social sector, the former in particular since it genuinely tackles long-term sustainability, but other recommendations are less convincing as a means to the desired ends. Plaques, high street enabling hubs and bidding advice are unlikely to deliver ‘quality in abundance’ in public services.
The final recommendation in that report highlights the larger systemic problem. A universal support programme for job seekers that delivers mentoring through a network of local third-party providers sounds like an excellent idea. Delivering it requires that network to be commissioned locally, and for the providers to be in a good position to bid for the contracts.
This ignores the reality: a local government network depleted in financial and social resources by a decade of austerity, and a social economy of tiny organisations who have no ability to deliver even medium-sized contracted work for the government. There’s no lack of will, but there is a lack of investment and capacity. Going from highly centralised public budgeting and programming – heightened by the Covid pandemic – to a network of local partners delivering embedded and engaged public services is decade-long project at least.
The current spending propositions don’t really help. The Levelling Up Fund and Towns Funds are poorly distributed, centrally managed and focused on short-term infrastructural expenditure. The Community Ownership Fund has the chance to be different: it could primarily support the maintenance of assets, rather than their transfer, and could explore the potential of match funding in poorer areas to ensure a fairer use of the available grant. Growing the social economy isn’t simply a matter of owning more buildings, it requires the effective development of viable long-term social purpose businesses. These don’t need to make large profits, but they do need to break even and, in that, assets can, on occasion, be more of a hindrance than a help.
And it is a matter of growing the social economy. There are arguments against growth, and not all social purpose organisations will want to expand, but if the ambition is local, networked public service delivery then growth is essential. Talk of community hands and volunteers is a distraction if what we really want to provide is high quality and fairly paying healthcare, social care, social work, family support services, youth support and probation services at a more local level. Even networks of small-scale co-operatives like those of Emilia Romagna would require growth. We don’t have the comparable density of social purpose co-operatives we would need because there’s been no space for them, and no commissioning currently for which they could possibly bid.
Achieving the kind of ambitions set out by The New Social Covenant Unit or in the government’s levelling up agenda means building the capacity of local authorities to commission locally networked providers and supporting the growth of the social economy to enable them to take on new contracts.
We have a decent body of evidence about the kind of investment that works to develop contracting capability from Futurebuilders England. That kind of flexible, patient lending would be needed again, and at scale. If smaller networks of providers are the key, then it would also need to be blended with grant for those organisations who will not be in a position to take on the necessary debt to fund their development.
There is also a clear opportunity provided by the pandemic to bring many more local businesses into cooperative ownership through a national holding company, or a network of regional debt-for-equity funds, that respond to the unequally distributed burden of Covid debt.
These two forms of investment, at a sufficient scale, would do much to move us towards the more social and more local future that unites conservative and progressive thinkers.
That investment is needed now. Change won’t come about without it, and that change will take time as well as money.