Debates about ‘levelling up’ have previously focussed on the economy – on infrastructure, investment, jobs and skills. The social and human aspects of regeneration have been neglected – by successive governments. This week’s Levelling Up white paper argues that you need to do both if communities are to thrive. People need skills and good jobs, but thriving communities are ones where social relationships are also strong. “Levelling up is a mission – part economic, part social,” was a powerful statement. The recognition given to community relationships in the white paper and the Levelling Up programme is an opportunity to make real changes on the ground and to put integration on the political agenda.
The Levelling Up white paper sets out an impressive programme of work to narrow place-based economic and social disparities across the UK. It sets out 12 targets that it wants to meet by 2030. These relate to local leadership, strengthened social connection and increasing people’s pride in the places where they live. It hopes to achieve these targets by increasing investment, encouraging innovation, increasing skills, improving the transport and digital infrastructure and regenerating high streets. What is different about Levelling Up, compared with past regeneration programmes, is that it places community relations and social fabric on an equal footing to economic issues.
Getting social integration right and dealing with local pressure points is key to building public trust in the immigration system. Building ‘bridging’ social connections, between newcomers and their host community, is essential. Doing so helps to dispel misconceptions and builds empathy and trust. For this to be achieved, people need opportunities for social contact. Thriving high street, parks and leisure centres are places where people of different backgrounds meet and mix with each other, a theme that was dominant in the Talk Together research into the UK’s divisions and how to bridge them. The Levelling Up white paper reiterates existing commitments on town centres, as well as announcing a new £30 million fund for parks.
There are also commitments to improve the quality of private rental accommodation and crack down on rogue landlords – local pressure points that the National Conversation on Immigration showed can impact on community relations in areas that have recently experienced rapid migration.
Sports, arts and heritage are also seen as important components of levelling up, all of which can help to bring people together, both as participants and as spectators. The Government is looking to bring more major sporting events to the UK, with UK Sport commissioned to undertake a feasibility study on an Olympic Bid for the 2040s. More arts and heritage funding will be allocated outside London, something that British Future called for in its 2019 Crossing Divides report.
Volunteering can also bring people from different backgrounds together, and its role is recognised in the white paper. There is a new commitment for a National Youth Guarantee, which includes giving every young person the opportunity to volunteer.
There will be more devolution deals for counties, more of which could become combined authorities headed by a Mayor. The UK Shared Prosperity Fund, which replaces the European Social Fund (ESF) and the European Regional Development Fund, is another component of Levelling Up. In the past, the ESF funded a number of integration projects, particularly those that helped asylum-seekers and refugees improve their English. It is essential that the UK Shared Prosperity Fund does the same.
Arguably, the announcement that offers the most for integration is the proposed Strategy for Community Spaces and Relationships. Strengthening bonding, bridging and linking social connections will be the aim of this strategy; it is bridging connections between people of different backgrounds that build empathy and trust and enable social integration. The Government says it wants to change the relationship between councils and civil society and get people to take a more active role in community life. This is a new commitment, and it is an area where the Government has undertaken little previous work. As ideas develop, it is essential that faith and civil society engage with this strategy. This is an opportunity that cannot be missed.
Much has already been written about the Levelling Up white paper. While it identifies ways to increase the impact of private and institutional investment, there is no extra public funding in it. The Levelling Up and UK Shared Prosperity Funds are UK-wide programmes, but many of the announcements in the white paper relate to England only. Will the public feel they are being ‘levelled up’ at a time where increased fuel and food costs mean they have less money in their pockets? How many of the commitments that are not already fleshed out will survive a new prime minister, particularly one who is more fiscally conservative? These are all challenges that lie ahead. But it is important that faith and civil society organisations show that strong communities and thriving economies must go hand-in-hand as we work together to put integration on the levelling up agenda.