“Communities are not left behind but overfertilised” say community organiser in conversation with MPs
At an event organised by Big Tent Ideas and Local Trust yesterday (20 April) a group of experts and MPs came together to discuss the Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda and what needs to be done to improve the situation for what is described as the UK’s ‘left behind’ communities. There was widespread critique of previous approaches to supporting underprivileged areas and calls for more resources and power to be given to local communities themselves.
To set the scene, the event was opened by Jeremy Yung, Senior Researcher at Local Trust, who has developed an index to identify communities that are ‘left behind’ by combining economic factors with other statistics relating to access to public services and health outcomes.* Yung reinforced that the main aim was to get granular detail of the areas so politicians and organisers can “move beyond the broad strokes”.
He went on to paint a bleak picture of the quality of life of many residents in left behind communities:
“There are a substantially fewer local jobs available in left behind areas compared with other deprived areas and a much lower jobs density. They are more likely to have no qualifications and less likely to have degree level qualifications. Almost one in four have limiting long-term illnesses compared to the national figure of 18%.”
Yung admitted that the term ‘left behind’ is something he is not terribly comfortable with, even if it has become the term used for areas with underfunded public services and relative poverty. Angela Fell, who leads the Neighbourhood Development Movement hosted at the Centre for Welfare Reform, agreed and put forward the term ‘overfertilised’ as a more suitable option, referring to the countless of funding schemes that have failed to bring about lasting change in the affected areas.
Fell likened the fortunes of her area to the recent Super League announcement, with “many richer groups leaving the area and taking their money with them.” Instead, she is a proponent of engaging directly with people at a neighbourhood level:
“Neighbour based democracy and community participation is critical component of social justice. Deliberative models strengthen representative democracy. Citizens knows what is best for them.”
“The accountability is to each other, it is not towards an institution – it is all about agency and enabling people to grow.”
The Co-Chairs of the APPG for ‘Left Behind’ Neighbourhoods also joined the event, and largely agreed with Fell’s sentiment. Dame Diana Johnson, Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull North, described what the past year had taught her about the need for well-funded social services run at the local level:
“Covid has reinforced my view about the importance of good local government. Taking power up into Whitehall really does not work well. There needs to be renaissance of local government and what it can achieve.”
While Johnson does not agree with many of the Government’s proposed ‘levelling up’ measures, she highlighted the need for cooperation and results-based work through the APPG:
“As much as I might disagree I want my part of Yorkshire to do better, so I have a vested interest in the Government succeeding.”
“This APPG seems like a way to help us think about how we can extend our public services in a targeted way from the bottom up. I’m really excited by this different approach the APPG is looking at.”
One thing Johnson brought forward that is unlikely to chime well with the current Government regarded taxation:
“If we’re serious about making sure areas that are left behind don’t remain so we will need to raise tax.”
Finally, Paul Howell, recently elected Conservative MP for Sedgefield, spoke candidly about what he described as an ongoing learning period for him as a relatively new politician:
“When I came into Parliament I came in with two positions – what I can bring with my own experience and what can I do for the communities I represent – it’s not about doing things to people but doing things with them. I’m hoping to learn how I can do this.”
Howell also brought up the complexity facing councils looking for funds to use for local regeneration, saying he was surprised after a long career in the business sector:
“For somebody who spent 40 years in industry, where all my funding was very straightforward, I find that there’s a disproportionate amount of time spent on just identifying where you need to get it from.”