Takeaways from the Levelling Up Communities Conference

Updated: Sep 12

Voice4Change England (V4CE) was happy to attend the Levelling up Communities: What's the evidence? conference in Manchester on Wednesday 4 May to explore the latest evidence on how to level up communities and neighbourhoods.

The conference brought together leading academics, researchers, and policy makers from the UK and internationally to consider new and established research and analysis to understand what works in achieving long-term, positive change in deprived communities.

The conference aimed to define priority areas for levelling up and the interventions needed to make a difference. The key themes it considered were:

•How can social capital – the strength of communities, relationships, and trust - help unlock Levelling Up?

•Community-led regeneration - What does the evidence tell us?

•Lessons from abroad: How can we restore a sense of community, local pride and belonging, especially in ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods?


The first keynote speaker was Andy Haldane, Chief Executive, Royal Society of Arts & Former Head of the Levelling Up Taskforce who outlined the establishment’s mea culpa of failing to include social capital as way for government to value and cost public investment. He remarked how pandemics have seen reductions in physical capital, human capital, and financial capital. Yet during the COVID-19 pandemic social capital bucked this trend. He used volunteering as an example whereby the social sector contributes over £200 billion in social value each year in the UK – around 10% of GDP but only one tenth of which currently finds its way into GDP. So, the question of quantifying social capital was the biggest obstacle to convince policymakers to fund it. He detailed his philosophy for how the treasury should approach Levelling Up and touched upon his lengthy time as Chief Economist at the Bank of England. There was informative content around how achieving net zero should be seen not just as compatible but mutually beneficial to Levelling Up.

The second session where we heard from Professor Pete Tyler from the University of Cambridge, this was very illuminating in terms of community led regeneration only being able to move forward if it has the evidence and data modelling to highlight ‘left behind’ areas. We were walked through a model to identify these ‘left behind’ communities which hope to highlight areas that are consistently falling behind on all metrics such as the number of libraries, leisure centres. Though it was concerning that no area in London (council ward) was determined to be ‘left behind’ which is surprising as some of the most concentrated areas of high poverty are in London boroughs such as Tower Hamlets, Hackney, and Newham. This lends to the argument that there is an appetite to make the narrative around Levelling Up about a North-South divide - that these are the regional fault lines. V4CE hopes to challenge this simplistic hypothesis to determine a more holistic approach to how Levelling Up is best shaped for left behind communities from East London to East Manchester.

Rt Hon. Andy Burnham, Mayor, Greater Manchester Combined Authority led the keynote speech in the afternoon with a rousing call for the government to take Levelling Up seriously. He explained how his track record in Manchester proved that by decentralising and devolving power to the regions, this enables and empower policymakers to make better and more informed decisions. He was very clear that for Levelling Up to be achieved that the ‘fundamentals’ must be fixed and were prerequisites for social change. These fundamentals were the right to a good and habitable home, secure well-paid work, and an efficient and cheap public transport system. He highlighted how he had failed in his time in Westminster and decried the Whitehall bubble for not addressing the needs of northern communities and used his constituency of Leigh as an example - it is the largest town in Britain to not have a train station and that didn’t change in his 15 years in parliament. He emphasised that in his capacity as Mayor he had renationalised the bus service and how he collaborated with 11 council leaders that in future procurement 20% social value must be met. Furthermore, he went on at length about how he aspires, if given more powers, that no landlord should be in receipt of housing benefit if the home does not meet building regulations etc. He criticised the government for lacking substance around Levelling Up but was encouraged by the mere fact that very phrase isn’t going away and that’s an issue for the government.


Another afternoon session attended was the Community leadership driving local improvement with research from Jennie Popay, Professor of Sociology and Public Health, Lancaster University and a case study presented by Cllr Nick Sharman in Hackney Wick. It humanised and gave context to the power and currency of community led engagement during the Covid-19 pandemic and how it exposed the limitations of local authorities and civil society to identify and help those in need. Professor Jenny Popay did accept and allude to the need for those involved in community leadership to be critical of how it is not always effective, and it can fail. We heard from a local resident who’s lived experience during the pandemic gave currency to the role of community leadership. They also touched on the pivotal role that the community played in designing the research, and the necessity that the research is not ‘top down’ but the grassroots were engaged from the off.


Finally, there was a session titled Lessons from abroad: how can we restore a sense of community, local pride and belonging, especially in ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods? Speakers included Raghuram Rajan, Professor of Finance, the University of Chicago and Eric Klinenberg, Professor of Social Science at New York University. They both spoke about the value that social infrastructure offers society and how when we see a downturn in investment in social infrastructure and a failure to maintain social infrastructure, we see a breakdown in social cohesion. Chicago was used a case study to highlight the importance of community leadership with the Resurrection Project playing a leading role at a hyper local level to ameliorate crime rates. Finally, looking forward they conversed about the future and nature of work and us being remote more will see less polarisation between cities and small towns. The evolution of ‘working from home’ will enable those who would normally migrate to large cities to stay and spread economic growth in their hometowns.

V4CE is eager to see far more of how racial disparities play a role in left behind communities and how the very inequalities Levelling Up is attempting to ameliorate are inequalities that are felt more by black and ethnic minority communities. To put it simply, the experience of a young BAME child in a deprived area will be more likely to be more adverse than that of a white child in the same deprived area. The role of race and how they contribute to health, income, educational and employment inequalities must be accepted and how race serves to exacerbate these very inequalities. Levelling Up must first recognise that black and ethnic minority communities will be more likely to encounter abuse, alienation, and marginalisation. Hence, going forward V4CE will be looking to see how Levelling Up can contribute to the needs of BAME communities in ‘left behind’ areas, ensuring that racial equality plays a central role in the government’s strategy and that V4CE members are at the heart of our response via consultation.


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