Daniel Ferrell-Schweppenstedde

Former Policy and Public Affairs Manager

Charities Aid Foundation

Meaningful 'levelling up' needs civil society at its heart

What role can it play?

26 June 2021

The government’s policy agenda around ‘levelling up’ is aimed at addressing the economic and social inequalities across different regions in the UK. Up until now details have been in short supply, but the recent announcement of the Levelling Up Fund has seen some further meat put on the bone and gives an outlook of what ‘levelling up’ means in terms of policy and funding.

For now the clear focus is on local infrastructure, bringing together the Department for Transport, the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Treasury to invest £4.8 billion across the UK.  However, various voices across civil society and the world of think tanks have started to point out the need not only to involve civil society organisations in programme implementation but also to widen the definition of infrastructure so that it includes both social infrastructure  and social issues. NPC examined the issue in their recent report Should We 'Level Up' Social Need?  and Pro Bono Economics has also offered valuable insights through a range of events.

The time is definitely ripe for a flagship government programme that incorporates civil society in a meaningful way to harness the potential of local action and knowledge. In the recent past, civil society has felt side-lined when it comes to the design and implementation of larger programmes – many of which, such as the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, felt as though they would have benefitted from  a civil society component in the design and delivery phase.

Furthermore, there is now additional energy on the ground that can be tapped into, with stories of newly unleashed initiatives abounding. Individuals and civil society organisations have stepped up in various forms to tackle the Covid-19 crisis. Community groups and charities have pivoted and mobilised millions of people; mutual aid groups have flourished, building new local networks; and private funders and philanthropists have made further funding available. New collaborations have been established with the business community, offering new pathways for community revival and setting up Covid response and recovery funds.

There is clearly immense social capital that could be utilised. But those working on the issues on the frontline have often found themselves frustrated by sporadic policy action and reform programmes under successive governments that often have not engaged civil society in a meaningful way, causing them to fall short in delivering on their commitments. They will need reassurance that new investments proposed as part of the levelling up agenda are substantial and long-term, and trust may need to be renewed.

‘Levelling up’ speaks to aspiration and builds a positive narrative around place. A sense of place and community can be a strong driver for a wide range of social action, but people and communities often lack confidence and need a trusted partner that can help them fulfil their potential and make use of untapped resources over time. People and communities around the country who want to be part of efforts to level up need reassurance that they will get the support they need, that resources are available over the long-term, and that efforts will not be disbanded if the political agenda shifts in the years ahead.

Government can play a role in this by ensuring that it listens to communities and values their local cultures and experiences. Funds being available is clearly important, but so is the approach taken in distributing them. There are various factors that could be taken more into account for making ‘levelling up’ a successful reform programme that sparks local revival:  

  • Moving away from short-term thinking: This involves simple things, like giving people on the ground time to become familiar with a programme and apply for funds. There is a long-standing discussion on whether media cycles and the in-built structural flaws of democratic systems that come with election cycles and changes in government push action towards short-termism and more piecemeal policy agendas. But on the other side there are many examples of initiatives and programmes surviving even a change of government. ‘Levelling up’ will have a longer-lasting impact when the perception on the ground is not one of being the latest ‘policy of the day’ but a long-term process.
  • Mutual recognition: Local leaders and Whitehall should be meeting on equal footing. Utilising local knowledge and solutions are essential to success even for larger programmes such as ‘levelling up’. Accountability through collective ownership of priorities is needed, but having a less centralised approach to programme implementation could ensure local buy-in. This requires civil society organisations and community groups to have a seat at the table through participation rather thanjust representation when decisions about where and how to invest are being made.
  • New partnerships and collaborations: The need for more cross-sector collaboration has been a key element of many discussions about how to tackle the big challenges facing our society today. This will take time and investment because working in collaboration and partnerships takes effort. But change can be more rooted and long-lasting as a result. Instead of competition, increased collaboration could take place that recognises and maximises the strengths of different sectors– but this will require investment.
  • Alignment with business around new agendas: Businesses are increasingly focussing on purpose, which includes reviewing the impact that they have on the communities in which they operate (on the local, national and global level). Many are asking themselves how they can be a wider force for good. This offers opportunities to align the priorities of local communities, government and business around new agendas that could lead to new initiatives and shared visions for development. Government has already invested in developing approaches that are suitable for this, like Place-Based Giving, and these could play a more prominent role in the ‘levelling up’ process.
  • Looking for new local leaders: Long-term commitments to support and work together with local leaders are crucial, but development becomes more self-sustaining when people are empowered to implement their own solutions around local priorities. Local leaders and change-makers are essential to this, and the ‘levelling up’ agenda could present new opportunities to bring in leaders and groups who might not have had a seat at the table in the past and who bring new perspectives. Again, civil society organisations are an obvious source of these new leaders, and can help policymakers engage with communities that they might otherwise struggle to reach.
  • Investing in human capital: ‘Levelling up’ is currently focussed on physical infrastructure, which ismore straight-forward when it comes to accounting for the spending. But every pound that goes into physical capital should be matched with investing in social and community capital as well to maximise the value of the overall investment. Economic knock-on effects could result in larger savings when public services are less utilised. The ‘levelling up’ programme will undoubtedly have an employment effect. But the impact could be limited if it is not accompanied with a local-first procurement approach and meaningful training and upskilling programmes that local populations can tap into. Civil society has historically played a big role in upskilling, training and providing employment related services. Many charities which have benefited from EU funding in the past provide essential services in this sector. There could be also an opportunity to align other funds (like the UKSPF) so that they are linked under a broader strategic approach, while still maintaining a different focus in terms of purpose of the fund.
  • Applying a broader definition of ‘levelling up’: ‘Levelling up’ has an obvious geographic dimension, but might also require different lenses such as youth, gender, age, ethnicity and environmental concerns along with a broader focus on wellbeing. We know from research that improvements around population wellbeing translate into economic gain. One example is pollution as a driver for health and wellbeing. Levels of pollution are often tied in with the type of economic development a place experiences. This might open up opportunities to tie in wider policy agendas that address wellbeing from different angles. This could also lead to investment that underpins communities and civil society at large. For example physical spaces that allow for social interaction and accumulation of social capital, together with the services provided in these spaces (more on this topic and further research can be found here). These could be youth and advice centres, training centres, or one-stop shop hub for voluntary services. There are also other funds and initiatives for example on culture, leisure and higher education that might lend themselves to being tied to a program around infrastructure investment.


What’s next?

‘Levelling up’ is an important and ambitious government agenda which could provide much-needed investment into left-behind communities and help with the wider recovery post-Covid. Rather than coming with a long wish-list of how policy-making can be improved, civil society – in very practical terms - has much to offer: knowledge and expertise, local networks and deep community ties, as well as capacity to deliver which can be multiplied when harnessed in the right way. But it will require additional investment and new political will to go beyond the agenda as currently outlined. It will require an understanding that addressing social issues is a core part of ‘levelling up’ and that civil society needs to be included as an equal partner from the get-go.

Government will publish a white paper on levelling up this year, which will set out proposals for future legislation. NCVO has been collecting feedback from the sector for Neil O’Brien MP, levelling up advisor, to make sure the government’s thinking on levelling up recognises the role of charities and volunteers. These are still early days of the programme and there is a long way to go; however there is clearly a major role for civil society to play in the government’s vision of ensuring that people and communities around the UK get an equal chance to share in future opportunities.