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CAF Policy Team

A champion for charities

Charities Aid Foundation


18 July 2017  

The Government has been going big on transport this week, extolling the virtues of its major high speed rail line, HS2, as over £6 billion worth of contracts have been announced.

According to the Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, HS2, a much scrutinised project, will not only provide new seats (for commuters and travellers, not MPs), but it will better connect our major cities, and will help rebalance our economy.

This is something politicians have been debating for some years – just how can we reconnect the UK’s towns and cities? How can we close that North-South divide, or share wealth beyond the outer boundaries of the M25? One answer, according to the Government is to build infrastructure like high speed rail, carrying people north of Birmingham to cities like Sheffield and Leeds and beyond. But railways will only get you so far, literally, and it’s high time that government, and other policymakers started thinking seriously about other ways to drive investment and growth into UK communities.

One thing that always seems to be missing from these discussions is philanthropy. Why? Philanthropy played an integral role in the success story of many of our great towns and cities in the UK. But as the traditional industries which fuelled our towns and cites declined, so too did the culture of giving within them, and it has not yet re-emerged to the same extent.

Why then have policy makers been idle when it comes to driving reinvestment through philanthropic means? Perhaps they don’t see it as their remit – too busy delivering services to consider ways of funding them? Or, arguably, has philanthropy become a bit of a dirty word, associated with a certain segment of society that frankly isn’t always the most popular?

But with a new political agenda comes a renewed focus on our towns and cities, and perhaps now the time is ripe to talk once again of philanthropy? Here’s why:

1. Devolution in practice

Devolution, once a theoretical term bandied around as something more concept than concrete, is now actually a thing. As power shifts away from Westminster and is handed back to English regions, and especially cities, policymakers will increasingly have closer ties with the areas they are elected to serve, and therefore we can expect a renewed focus on the local, not the national. That means that people are going to start thinking about issues like filling the local high street, fixing bin collections and sorting out local schools. But all of that requires money, and with cuts to budgets for local authorities, councils are going to have to start thinking about alternative funding sources for local services.

2. The anti-establishment backlash

There’s been much written about people losing trust in experts and growing tired of the Westminster bubble. Without repeating what’s already been said, in short we can certainly see a trend that favours a recapturing of personal agency. For many people that agency, and their personal identity along with it, is rooted in their community, where for too long they’ve felt powerless. People want to feel like they matter again, and they want politicians to respect and reflect that in office. That will mean that policy makers will need to stay closer to home, and focus on the things that matter to people’s everyday lives.

3. Introducing Mayors

Perhaps the most important element though, and potentially the biggest driver of philanthropy in towns and cities will be the 23 newly elected English Mayors who have taken up office across the country. Although currently limited in their scope for policy and spending decisions, these mayors can actually wield significant soft power, and if they wanted to could act as focal points for the development of local philanthropy in their area, leveraging in far greater resources to address the challenges facing their communities.

The idea of mayors as philanthropic leaders is not a new one. Dick Whittington was doing precisely this in the 15th century, and much more recently Michael Bloomberg has been doing it in New York. The Mayor’s Fund for London, and the establishment of a new fund in Manchester started by Mayor Andy Burnham are examples a little closer to home (and more modern day) of how this might work.

For a more in depth look at the role that mayors can play in driving philanthropy in our towns and cities, take a look at CAF’s new paper ‘Chain Links; The Role of Mayors in Building a Culture of Civic Philanthropy’, it’s the first part of our ‘Giving for the City’ programme which launches today and looks at how philanthropy can play an important role in reinvigorating UK towns and cities.

We’ll be working hard to disseminate this message to policy makers too in the hope that it might just give them something other than trains to talk about.

What are your thoughts? Let us know at or on Twitter @cafonline