This article was first published in ConservativeHome on 21/01/21
Community spirit has been integral to our fight against the virus. Looking beyond the pandemic, local areas must be empowered to harness civic pride to create the opportunities needed to level up the UK.
While there is no doubt that the last few months have been difficult, particularly as we enter another national lockdown, there are reasons to be optimistic. For starters, we are making fantastic progress with the roll-out of the vaccination, with more than 2.8 million vaccinations already administered across the UK.
But these next few months are also an opportunity to rekindle the civic pride we saw from local businesses, volunteers and communities during the first lockdown. According to national surveys, community spirit was high in April, but diminished alongside easing of restrictions. Now, we need communities to pull together again as cases soar and the latest outbreak of the pandemic threatens to overwhelm local health systems.
Civic pride is an important catalyst here. People in my constituency, Stoke-on-Trent Central, have a strong sense of belonging, and this is something that our community can build on, both to fight the pandemic and to deliver on levelling up.
Unfortunately, too many people lack the hope that things will improve for them and for their families. We need to find a remedy for this disconnect and help people believe in the potential of their local community once again.
Now that we have delivered on our manifesto commitment to get Brexit done and reclaim our sovereignty from Brussels, people and communities need to feel empowered. We must now hand back control to the community over their aspirations and opportunities, to build an inclusive economy from which everyone can benefit and to which everyone can contribute.
To unleash the UK’s productivity and create these opportunities, which will be the building blocks for our recovery, places need to be empowered through access to funding and greater decision-making powers. This means involving local social enterprises, businesses, and third sector organisations, who all have a hugely important role to play in providing jobs and training as well as vital services and spaces for people to support each other. These organisations, together with local decision makers, are better placed to identify and address local challenges and opportunities than policymakers in Westminster.
Not only must we recognise that engaging communities in the delivery of local infrastructure is essential for levelling up, we need also to expand our understanding of what ‘essential infrastructure’ is. Investments in physical infrastructure are undoubtedly essential for driving local economic growth, but social infrastructure is equally as important for communities’ prospects.
Research by the Centre for Progressive Policy (CPP) clearly demonstrates that investments in local skills, health and child services both offer comparable productivity returns to investments in physical infrastructure and are vital for generating that sense of civic pride that provides people with hope. CPP’s insights show that cuts to government spending on vital community services such as libraries, parks, and early-years offerings coincided with declining levels of civic action and engagement, showing how investment in these community assets is critical for fostering pride and hope in localities.
The national levelling-up fund announced by the Chancellor in November acknowledged the importance of ‘funding the infrastructure of everyday life’ for places’ economic recovery. In the coming months, local MPs like me should draw on the expertise of the community and business sectors to direct this funding to deliver the projects that are right for our communities. Showing people in places like Stoke-on-Trent Central that this Conservative Government is listening to and acting on their concerns will be essential for keeping hold of our newly won seats in the next election.
Levelling up should not be framed as the North vs the South, nor London vs the Rest. Poverty and inequality exist across the UK, and CPP has proved that investment in unleashing potential is required wherever there is a need for it.
To deliver on the levelling up agenda, all places must be afforded the same benefits as combined authorities, and influence of outfits such as the Northern Research Group. Stoke-on-Trent currently has neither, and we are less able to access funding drawn from central pots as a result.
For instance, we did not qualify for the first round of the Towns Fund due to the unique geographical make-up of the city and the historically linear nature of the city’s six towns. We also missed out on the last round of brownfield remediation funding, which went to combined authorities. Yet it is areas like ours that are particularly left behind and need this kind of funding.
The £4bn levelling up fund presents real opportunity to harness civic pride and local knowledge to reinforce cities like Stoke-on-Trent against the uncertainty of the future. To level up successfully, the Government must ensure that the fund gives real power to places and can be pooled with existing revenue streams to enable truly strategic and holistic investment. It must not become another centrally-controlled pot which pits communities against each other in a bidding war.
The civic pride present in constituencies like mine is a tremendous asset, which we must build upon to create a brighter future for post-Brexit, post-Covid Britain. Securing a landmark deal with the European Union was just the start. To win the next election for the Conservative Party, we must focus on delivering real levelling up opportunities for constituencies across the country.
Prioritising investment in local social infrastructure, growing our social asset base, and empowering local areas to deliver our local levelling up agenda can both bolster community spirit and support longer term economic prosperity.