What does Levelling Up mean for CLTs

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Tom Chance

Tom Chance

Chief Executive

I can’t pretend to have read all 332 pages of the Levelling Up White Paper in an afternoon. Nor do I want to try and summarise its contents or evaluate whether it will achieve the government’s aims. A lot of the commentary already out there boils down to: ‘if only they had listened to me!’

Instead, in this blog, I will pick out a few points that indicate what it might mean for CLTs.

The first is the notable omission.

There are pages of talk about empowering and investing in communities, and communities setting local priorities, shaping regeneration and development plans, and having a greater role in decision making and delivery.

But there is no mention of the Community Housing Fund, one of the most successful English policies of recent years to achieve these objectives.

I know from my dealings with officials that we are still too isolated in a small departmental pigeonhole that is one small part of a team focused on housing market diversification. When I wrote, with our Chair of Trustees, to the minister for levelling up, the response came from the housing minister. We have no contact with the officials working on levelling up, communities and local government. We need to convince officials and ministers that CLTs and the Community Housing Fund have a much larger relevance.

One statement really made me laugh, considering the omission of the Community Housing Fund:

‘Community-led regeneration cannot be achieved with a stop-start funding stream that first builds hope, then destroys it, leaving people less optimistic and trusting, and feeling more disempowered than ever.’

Despite this omission, we can take comfort from all the community talk.

We saw some of this language at the Conservative Party conference last year, and it is being voiced in the language of a different political tradition by the Labour Party.

This talk may benefit the CLT movement from quite another direction.

The paper says the government will pilot new models for community partnership that can help make local power a reality. Further details will be set out later this year.

The idea comes from Danny Kruger MP’s report to the Prime Minister from 2020, in which he suggested a Community Power Act enshrine a Community Right to Serve. Kruger set out a long list of examples, including:

‘In social housing, Community Land Trusts and other forms of community-led housing – usually small developments, supported by local people – should be recognised as the future of social housing, both in rural and urban areas, and more enthusiastically backed by government.’

In their separate response to Kruger’s report, the government says it ‘will learn through experimentation and doing, rigorously evaluating the impact of these pilots. If successful, these initiatives could be scaled nationally.’

As this is led by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport there is probably looking elsewhere – at pubs, local procurement and the like. I understand there hasn’t been any discussion about Kruger’s specific example of CLTs within the government.

So we will be lobbying for CLTs to be one of the new models to be piloted, or to be explored.

We have a wealth of experience in our movement of this kind of partnership, and ideas about how it could be scaled up nationally to become commonplace. Homes England dipped its toe in the water by asking new housing associations seeking Strategic Partnership status if they are embracing the CLT partnership model. More councils are trying out partnerships with CLTs. Government could take it much further.

The government is also going to consult on options for another £880m Dormant Assets Scheme, including consideration of the Community Wealth Fund proposal.

This is Local Trust’s idea, and a campaign we have backed. It would provide long-term funding over 10-15 years for deprived and left behind neighbourhoods, with the local community in charge of how it’s spent. Similar to the Big Local scheme, it could see more CLTs established, and provide useful sources of funding for existing CLTs in those areas.

The bigger theme in the white paper is a pledge to devolve far more funding to combined authorities and county councils. Both may have more control over how the £2.6bn UK Shared Prosperity Fund is spent in their area. More ‘devolution deals’ with Whitehall will devolve more funds and powers for regeneration.

So for CLTs and enabler hubs, there’s a growing need to engage with combined authorities and county councils. To get CLTs onto their radar, to show their strategic significance and the way you can help to deliver on local and regional priorities. Already we have seen how some CLTs have secured significant funding through these relationships, while in many areas they are missing out. Read our local advocacy handbook for guidance and tips on how to get this right.

The same theme applies to Homes England, which will be ‘refocused’ to partner with local leaders to unlock barriers and drive forward regeneration. It may become an increasingly formidable player, particularly in large strategic projects. So there are opportunities for CLTs to play a major role if they can get their voice into the room. That’s something we need to work on together – individual CLTs, enabler hubs and the Community Land Trust Network.

One consequence of this refocusing of Homes England is a commitment to redirect affordable housing money away from London and the South East (the least affordable regions) towards other parts of the country.

Whatever you make of this, I doubt it will have a significant impact on CLTs. Our pipeline – though growing fast – is still quite a small part of the overall affordable housing pipeline and so the chances of you being refused a capital grant for affordable homes in Greenwich, Sussex or Dorset is pretty slim.

But this reprioritisation – and the recognition of the importance of housing quality in left behind areas – may help our lobbying for funding for CLT projects that focus more on quality than additional homes. Currently, you can’t get a capital grant to buy homes off neglectful absentee landlords to refurbish them and revitalise the neighbourhood.  If the home has been empty for more than six months it’s a different story. We’ve lobbied for Homes England to be able to take a rounder view of local priorities, and to back communities that want to ensure local people can get an affordable, decent and secure home in a neighbourhood that’s looked after.

All of these points are really about signals rather than specifics, sadly. The white paper could mean this, it may mean that, but it might amount to little more than a hill of beans for CLTs.

So my final thought is – to ask not what the Levelling Up agenda can do for CLTs, but what CLTs can do to level up their communities.

We did some analysis for the All Party Parliamentary Group on Left Behind Places, which found that community led housing is abundant – even over-represented – in left behind places.

CLTs working in these communities are already part of the solution, and reading the white paper may give you ideas of how to have a wider impact.

Another source of inspiration might be research by OCSI for Local Trust, which suggests that the presence of places and spaces to meet in a neighbourhood, an active community life and good digital and transport connectivity contributes to improved socio-economic outcomes in the most deprived areas. So how can CLTs tackle all three priorities?

If you’re not too sure of the economic geography of your patch, and the issues, the Office for National Statistics has recently produced two really useful tools. The subnational indicators tool shows how your local council area performs on indicators as varied as life expectancy, the ability to cycle to a large employment centre, and life satisfaction. Their local income deprivation tool lets you explore, down to a very local level, exactly how divided your area is and where deprivation is most concentrated. How can your CLT address those issues, and in the most deprived places?

None of this is new. Similar issues and themes have been the stuff of British political economy for centuries.

What I love about CLTs is that we are already rolling up our sleeves and finding creative ways to strengthen our communities, we’re not waiting for funds or instructions from on high. Hopefully, the white paper signals a government that will be increasingly willing and able to put some power behind our elbows.

P.S. if you’re looking for a wider review of the Levelling Up White Paper, I’d recommend these blogs by our friends: Matt Leach from Big Local and Ailbhe McNabola from Power to Change