In last week’s Budget and Spending Review, the government announced the 351 projects, worth over £1.8bn, set to receive ‘levelling up’ funding. The allocations are fairly unsurprising, with the bulk of the funding being allocated to projects that focus on investing in hard infrastructure as a means for economic growth.
With levelling up leaders in government like Neil O’Brien and the new Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove, increasingly talking about the need to empower communities, improve public services and restore local pride, the government is starting to recognise that its levelling up policies will also need to invest in communities and people if the agenda is to be a success. However, if charities want to secure more funding to level up social needs, they will need to make a stronger case to the government.
The government faces a raft of inequalities across the country. These inequalities aren’t just economic. They manifest themselves in social issues too, the challenges people experience in their day to day lives. As Professor Michael Marmot pointed out at our recent NPC Ignites conference, since 2010 health inequalities have increased, with some of the most deprived areas showing a fall in average life expectancy, compared to an increase in life expectancy in some of the least deprived areas.
Our report on how the government can level up social needs, from earlier this year, investigated other indicators of social inequality, such as homelessness. Government data shows that urban areas like Salford, Wolverhampton and Southwark in London experience homelessness rates as much as 35 times greater than areas such as South Oxfordshire and the Derbyshire Dales. Importantly, polling in that same report also showed that people expect the levelling up agenda to tackle social issues, such as homelessness, ahead of delivering new transport links or improved high streets.
Many charities exist to alleviate the social challenges that people clearly want tackled by the government’s levelling up plans. But as our previous research also showed, the government appears to want the majority of the levelling up funding to be spent on hard infrastructure, like roads and high streets, leaving little space for charities to get involved in this agenda.
Is the agenda on track?
It was not surprising that Chancellor Rishi Sunak, in last week’s Budget and Spending Review, put a heavy focus on hard infrastructure. 105 projects, worth almost £1.7bn, were allocated funding under the government’s flagship Levelling Up Fund. The government only published the names of each project, so it is not entirely clear what the funding will be spent on, but as the prospectus for the fund states that all of the funding should be spent on hard infrastructure, we can assume that was mirrored by the newly funded projects.
NPC analysis of the project titles suggests that around a third of the projects look like they’re focused on transport improvements, but only 10% appear to be for high streets or renewal of local markets.
It also seems that this initial round of funding isn’t being targeted in the most deprived areas of the country, where social needs are likely to be highest. A report from the Centre for Levelling Up (CELUP) at the University of West London found that less than half (47%) of the funds allocated to projects in England were allocated to areas ranking in the most deprived 20% of the country (in terms of the Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD)).
Signs of a shift?
Yet there are some interesting signs coming from those in and around government, as well as in the local authorities that are applying for the funds, that there may be more opportunities opening up for investment in social infrastructure, and for charities and community groups to get involved in the agenda.
About a fifth of the projects that got funding in the first round appear to be for improving cultural buildings, and around 10% for improving community buildings and sports facilities. It seems that local authorities, who coordinate the funding bids, or national government who assess the bids, have prioritised community and cultural buildings—which can be used to provide important services in deprived communities.
Two other levelling up funds have also announced their funding allocations since the Budget and Spending Review. 225 projects, worth £125m, were allocated funding under the UK Community Renewal Fund. Many of these projects have a strong skills focus and some are targeted at building capacity in the voluntary sector. A further 21 projects, amounting to £5.3m, were allocated funding under the Community Ownership Fund, and these projects are focussed on restoring and creating new community hubs, pubs, and training facilities. Both of these funds are likely to have charity involvement and offer an opportunity for charities in local areas to coordinate their services with the new projects.
These funds pale into virtual insignificance when compared to the government’s other levelling up funds that are focused on hard infrastructure. These funds—the Towns Fund, the Future High Streets Fund and the Levelling Up Fund—have already allocated over £4.8bn. But the UK Community Renewal Fund is the precursor to the much larger UK Shared Prosperity Fund, the successor to EU structural funding, and the government has announced that the UK Shared Prosperity Fund will be worth up to £1.5bn per year.
The opportunity to influence
Aside from an announcement of a new £560m adult numeracy programme, we are still awaiting more details on the UK Shared Prosperity Fund. There is also a White Paper on levelling up expected later this year and over £3bn remaining in the Levelling Up Fund for future allocation.
With recent hints that the government is starting to recognise the importance of social infrastructure to the levelling up agenda, there is a huge opportunity for charities and others to influence the allocation of the government’s remaining levelling up funds. Charities should advocate for this money to be invested in social needs, as well as in local charities.
With further levelling up announcements coming very soon, the window for influencing the government will be small. Charities need to coordinate their advocacy and make a strong case for investing in people and communities. This advocacy should be focussed on why this will help the government deliver its levelling up agenda, and why investment in hard infrastructure alone simply won’t be enough to meet the public’s expectations and to face up to the raft of inequalities currently plaguing the country.