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Locally-led institutions are crucial to the Government’s levelling-up agenda

If there is one New Year’s resolution that the Conservative government should keep to, it’s to make progress on its nascent levelling-up agenda.

In his first speech as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson pledged to lead a government that would finally answer the pleas of the “forgotten people and the left behind towns” that had backed Brexit.

This covenant was sealed when the same communities delivered the Prime Minister his stonking majority in 2019. The interruption of Covid has frustrated action so progress is now imperative to show us what makes levelling up truly distinct. Another election really isn’t that far away.

The Government has made some progress, with the first allocations from the Levelling Up Fund and the Towns Fund. The Levelling Up White Paper, delayed until early this year, must finally provide the clarity and direction the Government’s admirable yet frustratingly abstract ambition has so far lacked.

One aspect might be that levelling up cannot be delivered by Whitehall fiat. Communities don’t want the Government in London to tell them how to make their lives better, they want the opportunity to make that change themselves. While the state still has an important role to play, it is trusted locally-led institutions that must lead the way. This principle must be at the heart of the plan.

Conservatives recognise, in particular, the need to build and protect institutions, especially for local communities. Institutions leverage and support individual behaviour, bringing different people together in pursuit of a common good, so that social cohesion and capital is strengthened. Thriving local institutions are thus vital for levelling up so-called “left-behind” areas.

So what are these key local institutions that can support and transform individuals and communities in deprived areas? Conservatives have traditionally looked to the Church and charities, but housing associations are also increasingly critical anchor institutions in “left-behind” areas.

As local institutions with a proven track record of supporting and transforming individuals and communities in deprived areas across the country, housing associations are a key lever for unlocking the potential of “left-behind” areas. Almost half of all socially rented homes are located in the most deprived 20 per cent of areas in England. More than 2.4 million households live in accommodation provided by housing associations, particularly in the Midlands, the North East, and North West of England.

Today, the PlaceShapers network of community-focused housing associations, working with Bright Blue Intelligence, launches a new report, Stay Local, Go Far. The report encourages us to cast regeneration as central to levelling up, and think about four dimensions of regeneration: physical, economic, social, and democratic. Housing associations can and do, support such regeneration.

Livin is a housing association in my constituency. I have seen how it has supported these four dimensions in its work. Livin’s approach is based on improving the prospects of whole places, rather than just individuals.

First, the restoration of physical infrastructure is essential. Housing associations ensure access to affordable and sustainable housing. Private funding contributed £6 for every £1 of public funding for housing associations in 2019, representing £13.5 billion of new private finance. A 1930s estate known for high levels of anti-social behaviour, was unattractive for private investment, but £5.4 million from Livin helped to transform the area, increasing homeownership from 32 per cent to 62 per cent and halving energy bills. Leveraging such investment, in partnership with both the state and market, makes housing associations such critical enablers of levelling up.

Second, on economic regeneration: housing associations act as significant providers of jobs, both directly and indirectly, with around 140,000 people employed, often involving apprenticeships and specialist training for the members of the community. Many housing associations support young people not in education, employment, or training with support to get into employment, often using their strong connections with local businesses and other quality training providers.

Levelling up isn’t just about pure economics, of course, it’s also about making places feel more liveable and boosting civic engagement and pride. It is the “place” where people live that determines how good they feel about their lot. Social landlords invest £750 million each year into community work, beyond the core provision of housing. They provide financial and administrative support for community projects.

All of these community benefits are enhanced by democratic involvement of housing association residents in decisions and projects that affect them. Autonomy over running properties and shared spaces, including budgets to spend on improvements, builds trust and enhances engagement. But communities need support to do this.

Levelling up so-called “left-behind” areas, especially in coastal and former industrial areas, is a noble aim, but it is hard work, requiring significant investment and patience. No government working alone can transform deprived communities.

Modern conservative politicians and thinkers are looking to improve the security – not just the liberty – of people living in this country, especially those on lower incomes who voted for a Conservative government for the first time in a generation, sometimes ever. Looking more to its communitarian traditions, the Conservatives in office today need new allies and institutions to build economically, socially and environmentally vibrant communities in traditionally poor areas. Housing associations are here to help.

Paul Howell

Paul Howell is the Conservative MP for Sedgefield in County Durham.

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