Levelling up by our bootstraps

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What would it take to level up communities that are left behind?

That question will be at the top of Michael Gove MP’s agenda in his new role, replacing Robert Jenrick MP who we met days before he was sacked!

The conventional answer to the question of how you level up starts with top-down infrastructure projects, tax incentives and a lot of support to businesses. But the No Place Left Behind Commission has published a thoughtful and thorough report that demands a very different kind of answer.

After more than a year spent talking to people living and working in areas dubbed ‘left behind’ they have identified over 50 policy proposals. The publicity boils these down to something like: let local people take the lead in making their town or suburb a better place to live and work. More trees and trams in place of concrete and cars. More focus on refurbishing and upgrading existing homes and high streets, with community leadership and ownership at the heart of the process. Make them good places to live in, and jobs will be more likely to come.

The challenge is that achieving this would require more than enacting dozens of policy proposals. It requires a mindset shift.

This was clear in the launch event. A minister spoke about the role of business but said little about the role of communities. Another speaker, Rachel Wolf, said town centres need to provide for electric cars and that Whitehall will always want to control things. If they had read and reflected on the 263-page report they did a good job of hiding it.

So what is this mindset shift? Toby Lloyd, the Chair of the Commission, captured it in his opening address.

He spoke about the need to develop ecosystems of institutions in local areas. The Commission found that positive change comes about when local councils, local businesses and community organisations are knitted together in a diverse and resilient ecosystem.

This echoes the work of the economist Elinor Ostrom, who dedicated much of her career to studying real-life commons management systems around the world. In her Nobel Prize speech she captured, in an academic and abstract parlance, exactly what Toby Lloyd and the Commission call for:

Extensive empirical research leads me to argue that a core goal of public policy should be to facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans. We need to ask how diverse polycentric institutions help or hinder the innovativeness, learning, adapting, trustworthiness, levels of cooperation of participants, and the achievement of more effective, equitable, and sustainable outcomes at multiple scales.

Elinor Ostrom

(The think tank New Local ran a great project recently looking at her work, basing their Community Power project on her insights.)

The No Place Left Behind Commission found that in ‘left behind’ places ‘this basic infrastructure of institutions and investment is too often either lacking or too weak for them to bounce back and reinvent themselves’.

Ostrom observed that ‘polycentric’ economies work best, where there are many centres of decision making that are formally independent of one another, and that are able to compete and cooperate within an interdependent system. She also found that commons can be powerful ways to organise resources.

The Commission touches on ‘the dilemma of regeneration’ – that building up people’s skills and employability can lead them to leave town for a nicer place to live, but making it a nicer place to live can attract higher-income residents and the gentrification prices existing residents and businesses out. There’s a potentially crucial role here for CLTs, stewarding land in a commons, holding its value to benefit everybody and preventing that cycle of gentrification.

The Commission’s report sets out many policy levers that government could use to build up those ecosystems of institutions. The Commission doesn’t seek a Big Whitehall Wheeze to level these places up, but rather a fine-grained enhancement of the physical and social infrastructure in the place so the people can level themselves up by their bootstraps.

A similar fine-grained approach struck me when I first visited Community Land Trusts. Expecting to just hear about homes, I am usually given a story of the homes, workspaces, shops, the pub and post office, everything about the social and economic fabric of their village or town.

The Commission emphasises that regeneration and levelling up is mostly likely to succeed when local people are engaged in the process. A powerful way to do this is to include more community ownership in the tapestry of local institutions, giving people real, durable power.

Community ownership of the land gives them the power to add to and enhance this tapestry, so the community can thrive, and to work as partners with housing associations and councils and developers, rather than waiting for others to fix problems (and often waiting for decades). Like Heart of Hastings CLT, featured in the report, which is working in partnership with nine other local organisations through ‘Hastings Commons’ to revitalise the White Rock area of the town, including a prominent building that has been left to gradually rot for over 30 years.

This idea of polycentricity also informs our strategy at the Community Land Trust Network. We are trying to develop a network of local CLTs and regional enabler hubs, brought together by us to have a strong capacity to influence government and market policy and practice. Our work is that much more difficult, that much more interesting, because we are trying to collaborate to develop this ecosystem, rather than just building a big, national, top-down charity.

We want the Government to extend the Community Housing Fund to help us build up this sector infrastructure and to trust communities to take the first risky steps to bring forward new homes (or to refurbish old ones). We want the fund to include a portion for councils that can collaborate effectively with their communities, as key local institutions. We back calls for a Community Wealth Fund to give communities the capacity and confidence to do more, building on the great success of the Big Local programme.

What we really want from government and the market is partnership in this approach. Trusting communities to take ownership, and being willing to work in partnership with citizens.

This mindset shift is challenging not just because it’s more complex to think about ecosystems of institutions rather than Whitehall wheezes. It also challenges our egos and identities as individuals and organisations. As another American academic put it, moving to a politics and social organisation based on ecosystems requires a different ethics:

The cast of mind that today organizes differences among human and other life-forms along hierarchical lines of ‘supremacy’ or ‘inferiority’ will give way to an outlook that deals with diversity in an ecological manner — that is, according to an ethics of complementarity.

Murray Bookchin

This ethics of complementarity is needed, and not just between Whitehall and Wigan.

As I hear all too often from our members, ideas of supremacy and inferiority can stop local government from collaborating with community organisations. There is a great deal of scepticism in town halls about community power, a prevailing belief that problems must be fixed by the council or businesses. So, too, in many housing associations, in a sector with roots in community activism. While some have been willing and valuable partners to CLTs, others can be paternalistic and look down on community ownership and power.

If the newly renamed Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities is to succeed, it needs to trust communities and work with others to engender that trust in the rest of the economy. Whitehall will only contribute meaningfully to levelling up if it can share control with local centres of power.