“I hope this is the agenda for our politics for the next era – who owns the agenda of communities,” Danny Kruger told a fringe meeting at the Conservative party conference in Manchester. A constructive reset in the relationship between government and civic society could help to forge a more fruitful alliance that could help to realise the potential for community-powered action from the current focus on Levelling Up.
The fringe meeting was co-hosted by New Philanthropy Capital, the Centre for Local Economic Strategies and Impetus, and chaired by British Future Director Sunder Katwala. The panel explored how the levelling up agenda, often associated with investment in physical infrastructure, should give equal priority to social infrastructure and investment in people, places and communities.
“The social dimension goes beyond public services, such as education and health. It is also about the gathering places of communities, and what makes them liveable and loveable,” said Danny Kruger, PPS to the Secretary of State Michael Gove.
Social mobility had become associated with geographic mobility, Kruger said, adding that one test of the levelling up agenda was to change this, so that it should be possible to stay local and to get on.
Darlington MP Peter Gibson said that his town had been blessed with being a focus of early initiatives, including the new Treasury campus in Darlington. “It has unleashed a sense of aspiration for the town. People have felt a sense of pride, but many places have felt undervalued and under-loved,” he said.
As chair of the Social Integration APPG, soon to publish the report of its inquiry into social connection during the pandemic, Gibson noted that “Those places that are poorer and less socially cohesive have less social capital to pull it together.” This made local and national government investment in resilience and capacity-building important.
Councillor Kevin Bentley, leader of Essex County Council and chair of the LGA People and Places board, set out how Levelling Up was relevant to a prosperous county with significant challenges of deprivation. There was a need for a Levelling Up agenda across the county. Like the national agenda, this needed to recognise the different starting points for different people and places.
Sarah Longlands, chief executive of CLES, also emphasised the importance of economic security. “Giving people a sense of control – a real say and a real stake in what happens. But when we talk about community power, we cannot underestimate the role of economic power in that,” she said, adding that this could have a decisive practical impact on the capacity and appetite to participate.
“Place is critical – but only in as much as it builds for the people who live in those places,” Eleanor Harrison of Impetus told the meeting, highlighting the need for investment in infrastructure and people to go together. Making a Youth Opportunity Guarantee would provide an important foundation to ensure that young people not in education, employment or training were not overlooked in the Levelling Up agenda, she said.
Dan Corry of NPC said that nine-tenths of the policy focus had been on visible physical infrastructure, leaving some significant policy gaps for the new department to address. The charity sector could risk being “missed out” in government thinking, he suggested, arguing that there could be much better coordination and communication of funding streams and opportunities.
Eleanor Harrison of Impetus and Dan Corry of NPC both saw stronger data on the distribution of social capital as an important tool for understanding needs. This could inform government as well as philanthropists to understand where the need to invest in capacity-building was a crucial foundation for Levelling Up.
Danny Kruger suggested that there was an important opportunity to reset the relationship between government and civic society, and that this would involve some bridge building from both sides.
“The Conservative Party needs to take a step towards charities and civic society – and the sector needs to take a step towards the Conservative party and government as well,” he said. A sense of “automatic suspicion”, or a characterisation of the levelling- up agenda as simply cover for austerity, risked being barriers to this. There was a mutual case for “putting down our weapons” and working together in a “potentially fruitful alliance,” said Kruger.
DCMS minister Nigel Huddlestone contributed from the fringe audience, saying that this was an important moment for partnerships to build on the lessons and experiences from the pandemic. He told the fringe meeting that he was likely to be formally confirmed as the new charities minister imminently as departmental portfolios were announced.
Summing up from the chair, Sunder Katwala of British Future said that the fringe meeting had highlighted the opportunities and challenges of keeping “the gains as well as the pain,” after the Covid pandemic. Sustaining the surge of civic engagement and volunteering would now require different approaches beyond the crisis. So the shared appetite for new thinking about the respective roles and relationships between government, business and civic society was important if the moment was not to be missed.