Full disclosure: I live in England’s northernmost county, cheek by jowl with some of the country’s most challenging areas. But my location, by the River Tyne in Northumberland – midway, you might say, in Britain – emphatically does not mean I’m remote from issues further south in London and the greater south east: increasingly unaffordable housing, a laissez faire planning system bedevilled by the squalor of ‘permitted development’ flat conversions which should shame a civilised country, and – yes – poverty amidst plenty.
In the January-February TCPA journal I helped pull together a series of pieces addressing this government’s occasional theme of ‘levelling up’ places once pejoratively labelled ‘left behind’, or ‘post industrial’ which, on reflection, might more accurately be called ‘held back’, and certainly ‘sidelined’ by successive administrations.
I’ve long contended, as former TCPA trustee colleagues might attest, that these places represent one of the greatest social and economic challenges facing Britain. This is the other side of the coin to the new communities and garden cities debate – namely, comprehensive social and economic renewal – which could equally apply to many of our deteriorating suburbs and outlying former council estates.
Undeniably, most of the ‘held back’ places – certainly not all – happen to be in the north of England and the midlands (and, yes, Scotland and Wales, face similar challenges in spades). Until relatively recently, identifying ‘left behind’, or ‘held back’ places has proved challenging. But a national charity, Local Trust (formed initially with a £217m endowment from the National lottery Community Fund in 2012) has taken the lead, using consultants to identity the areas most in need of renewal. Their research shows 225 left-behind wards (electoral divisions) in England with a total population of almost 2.2 million. These include former mining areas of the north east, swathes of Greater Manchester and Merseyside, with high concentrations of deprivation in South and West Yorkshire, from former mining areas to outlying estates, along with seaside towns in the east and south of England. So, you might say in short, islands of ‘held back’ places in the south – matched by large archipelagos in the north.
What to do? We know that the Levelling up, Housing and Communities Secretary Michael Gove – under the cosh from the Treasury – is likely to shortly announce the creation of a modest, £700m Community Wealth Fund – operated independently of Whitehall and drawn from the proceeds of forgotten, or dormant back accounts – to help renew some of the most deprived parts of England. While it’s a small step forward, a much broader strategic programme is clearly needed – and that certainly wasn’t displayed with a second £2 billion round of ‘levelling up’ funding announced in January with more than a hint of political opportunism, based on the discredited system of competitive bids, creating winners and losers.
In the circularity of the enduring debate on the north-south divide what, you might ask, has substantially changed after 13 year of Conservative government – aside from Boris Johnson acknowledging that his party’s success at the last election in the so-called ‘red-wall’ seats, in the north and the midlands was at least partly a cry for help in towns which overwhelmingly voted for the UK to leave the EU in 2016? Johnson briefly embraced ‘levelling-up’: a catchy slogan big on hype and short on substance. Only a tiny proportion of the first round of ‘levelling up funding’ has been spent.
As Lord (Bob) Kerslake, former head of the civil service – and previously chief executive of Sheffield City Council – told me recently, the subsequent Levelling Up White paper might say the right things … ”but it’s very weak on execution”. Published a year ago, it had four policy objectives: boosting productivity, pay, jobs and living standards by growing the private sector; spreading opportunities and improving public services; restoring a sense of community, local pride and belonging; and empowering local leaders and communities.
All well and good. But the tools and delivery mechanisms which might have aided that execution were all abolished by a deconstructionist Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government – remember Lord Eric Pickles? – after 2010. Pickles gloried in scrapping eight regional development agencies (RDAs), as well as aligned government officers in the regions (GORs) – creation of a previous Conservative government – while abolishing a valuable regional planning apparatus.
At their best, these RDAs applied sensible regional planning, allied with targeted business intervention and land (and community) renewal – armed with decent funds, lobbying clout and willing, as Bob Kerslake recalled, to partner local government and provide extra capacity where necessary. And, above all that, the country had a national regeneration body, English Partnerships, which used its skills as a further tool to help depressed areas. As Kerslake notes – and he was permanent secretary for a time in Pickles’ department – valuable capacity was lost in the name of austerity.
As Local Trust notes, the deterioration in prospects for ‘left-behind’, or ‘held back’ places is “doubtless related to austerity and the cuts in public services and welfare benefits it ushered in … these areas have suffered disproportionately.”
While the task of a new government in addressing ‘held back’ places is monumental, inescapably new local, regional and national delivery mechanisms are needed capable of pushing what Kerslake calls “comprehensive long-term intervention” rather than short-term fixes.
As a general election gets closer – most likely next year, but who knows in this febrile political climate? – it’s surely time to take stock and address an area where the TCPA has displayed considerable prescience, highlighting the plight of areas too easily labelled ‘forgotten’ or ‘left behind’.
While the forthcoming £700m Community Wealth Fund is a start, it clearly falls short of the £2 billions Local Trust had identified from unclaimed assets – also including shares, pensions and insurance policies – to kick-start targeted intervention. But more is needed. That means long-overdue new thinking by the state, acting as ringmaster and not always provider, alongside other players. These could include well-endowed charitable and third sectors actors such as the Church Commissioners (which funds the Church of England) and semi-state agencies such as the Crown Estate, one of the UK’s largest property enterprises with assets of £15.6 million, providing the monarchy with an annual sovereign grant to fund the royal household. It also owns the seabed up to 12 miles off the coast the value of which, according to the Financial Times, has “surged since 2021 thanks to the lucrative use of seabed rights” for offshore wind farms.
So here’s my suggestion: let’s, at the very least, consider creating a new community, or sovereign wealth fund, drawn from the public and, where necessary, the private sectors – taxing unexpected windfall profits in energy and elsewhere – to specifically begin addressing the multiple social, economic and environmental challenges in ‘held-back’ places. Up to now, our country has not been particularly adept at harnessing all the potential funding players for the greater good. We don’t think radical. We underestimate the power of the state as enabler. Now’s the time to start.
Peter Hetherington is a TCPA vice president, and past chair. His latest book, Land Renewed: reworking the countryside is published by Bristol University Press.