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We Right Here 246If I led Levelling Up – local changemakers speak

From a blog by We're Right Here

The Government have recently published proposals for Levelling Up. What about the people already working for years to create better, more hopeful places? How would they ‘level up’ if power lay with them rather than Westminster? Four leaders give their thoughts:

1. “Make it easy for communities to take over spaces and places.” Deana Wildgoose, Coalville C.A.N, Leicestershire

Power lies with those that have ownership of land and buildings. They charge the rents and control the assets. Often these people and corporations are not part of the community, therefore all profits aren’t spent locally or shared locally, they are extracted from the area. Often places are boarded up as the increase in value of holding them is worth the wait. 

This makes it difficult for people to make change, or believe change can happen when they can’t get started. Make it easy for community-owned organisations to have the finance they need to take over spaces and places! Public Works Loans and grants made easily accessible for Community Benefit Societies (CBS), Community Land Trusts and similar.

This would make a big difference for us in Coalville. The council recently went for a levelling up bid of over £24 million, but got nothing. Their scheme mainly involved working with a developer, with no community ownership or meaningful community involvement. With less than a third of that bid, the community could have ownership and control of three empty buildings – and have them refurbished and ready for opening. 

One could be an events venue – providing a range of activities and jobs for hundreds of local people and businesses. Another could be a cooperative flagship with cooperative living, working and a new shop space in a restored heritage building in the centre. The other could be an urban activity venue, providing inclusive activities for the whole community including a community hub, national parkour centre, gaming centre and indoor skate park.

2. “Levelling Up needs the same ambition as the Marshall Plan in post war Germany.” Sacha Bedding, The Annexe, Hartlepool

Time and again, we’ve seen top-down grand ideas fail to materialise and deliver the changes they promise. Not only is this bad for places, but it’s bad for democracy too. Levelling Up promises a lot and I, for one, want it to succeed.

I want it to succeed so that the quality of life for people in Hartlepool is noticeably better and that there is a genuine opportunity that their life chances are not going to be hindered because of where they live. If Levelling Up isn’t going to end up on the scrapheap of empty political rhetoric, it needs to recognise the enormity of the inequalities in this country.

We need decision making and resources penetrating deeper than the supra-local level of combined authorities, so that those people who know best about their place have a genuine role and stake in shaping how and where the resources are best invested. We know that at the hyper-local level, people understand what the deep-rooted causes of concern are. They are careful with public funds, and they are prepared to work together to get the very best impact. Levelling Up needs to build on this, to trust in communities and to create the conditions so local people, in their local places, are able to affect the change they want to see.

3. “A Community Power Act would release the potential of grassroots.” Inayat Omarji MBE, Bolton

What I have seen in my time on the ground is that communities are either told what to do or what they will get, or organisations must fight for what will make a difference in their neighbourhoods.

Politicians and council officers in all towns and cities will certainly feel that they are doing their best and are stretched in terms of the resources they have. I feel for them, but also argue that engaging local communities directly at grassroots will bring even more resources and talent to support the delivery of services and ambitions of local communities.

For me, real levelling up would mirror our idea of a Community Power Act. It would involve a bottom-up neighbourhood action plan, written by the ‘grassroots’ and supported by local politicians and the local authority with the right level of resources to kickstart the delivery. The neighbourhood plan would unpack the key areas to pursue and make sure communities’ voices are heard, whether its tackling issues around social housing, open spaces, community facilities or children’s services. Again, this would need the right amount of resources, with significant decision-making powers devolved to community organisations. This ties up with our call to ‘create community covenants between communities and councils’.

4. “We would do it in communities, with local people, delivering local projects.” Andy Jackson, Heeley Development Trust, Sheffield

The first thing I would do is to listen… Not to big business, mayors, or local government but to people who live and work in communities, where all the skills and none of the investment reside.

I think if I asked today among the things I would hear is – that the Government is doing the same thing they have always done – and it will will lead to the same result we’ve always got. If they do that we will still need levelling up – or neighbourhood renewal, or community economic development or urban regeneration or whatever they call it next when they’ve done and they all go home.

We would call it community development and we would do it in communities, with local people, delivering local projects. The Levelling Up Fund coming to Sheffield won’t make any difference to my community – I bet no one notices it’s happened. The real economic infrastructure in Sheffield is led and owned by local people. Charities and not-for-profits like Heeley Trust have worked for 25 years or more to take on the projects and problems no one else would: creating community parks, fixing broken windows, bringing derelict heritage architecture back to life, employing local people and using local contractors.

When we’re done, the increase in the value of our buildings and land won’t be siphoned off by land bankers or the private sector, it won’t be sold and lost by the local authority – it will be there, alive, full of local people, volunteering, making, building, sharing. And the money will be reinvested in the next community project or priority.

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From a blog by We're Right Here, 21/06/2022

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