The countdown to the publication of the government’s long-awaited levelling up blueprint is on. A White Paper is anticipated imminently and what started as a slogan crafted for Boris Johnson’s Conservative party leadership campaign will become 100-plus pages of policy.
Will it be worth the wait? Only if the government recognises the importance of civil society in every step of its plans.
Throughout the two-year process intended to define levelling up, complaints about its ambiguity have never been far away. Indeed, YouGov polling in December found that half of people surveyed still did not know what levelling up meant. But that can hardly come as a surprise, given how much the phrase has evolved.
Only after Michael Gove took charge of levelling up in last autumn’s reshuffle did any real definition of the phrase take shape. The new Secretary of State coalesced levelling up around four core objectives: empowering local communities, boosting living standards, spreading opportunity and improving public services, and restoring local pride.
That’s a very ambitious agenda. And the latest rumours out of government suggest there will be no new money available to make it possible. Delivering a lot with very little is something charities do best, and government could learn a lot from the social sector as it tries to make levelling up a reality. Indeed, charities are integral to everything Gove and his team want to achieve.
Consider ‘boosting living standards’. Charities don’t just patch up the holes in our social security system: they provide the ladders by which people can climb out of poverty. From the thousands of volunteer tutors helping disadvantaged children at school, to those supporting adults into better paid employment with literacy and maths tuition, charities are a crucial and often overlooked component of our education system.
Charities around the country are already ‘spreading opportunity’. Transitions London, for instance, works to re-start the careers of refugee engineers and business architects, while High Ground supports armed forces leavers to find new careers in land management. Importantly, charities doing this vital work are creating opportunities for those who most lack them.
Civil society organisations are uniquely placed to do this. They are embedded in the communities they serve and engaged with groups that others simply cannot reach. Charities and community groups provide the forum in which people can gather and decide on their own priorities, whether it’s investing in a local pier or replenishing green spaces. They are a key tool for ‘empowering local communities’ to bring the change they want and need.
As for ‘improving public services’, this is an impossible challenge for any government that chooses not to collaborate closely with civil society. Our NHS wouldn’t function without the tens of thousands of volunteers contributing their time as drivers, porters and befrienders. Neither would our courts without volunteer magistrates, the education system without volunteer school governors, or the police force without volunteer community support officers. All the while, the charity sector is delivering vital not-for-profit services as the largest supplier of NHS-commissioned mental health care, as well as the highest quality provision of social care available.
Civil society is also central to ‘restoring local pride’. Research for the Law Family Commission on Civil Society shows that life satisfaction among people living in a community is closely linked to the presence of a strong ‘social fabric’. This means volunteering opportunities, community assets like libraries and local groups to join.
The third sector is a vital component of each of the key strands which underpin the much-anticipated levelling up proposals. It is fundamental that the sector is given a role to play in the plans, not as an afterthought but as a partner. The sector should be helping not just to deliver solutions across very different parts of the country, but playing a key part in defining the problems faced as well. Charity leaders would welcome the chance to help, with a recent poll showing 47% of them believe their organisations could play a role in levelling up.
Direct investment in the charity sector is needed to make this happen. In the most deprived areas of the country, there are 28% fewer charities available to play their part, and charity grants from local authorities have fallen 20%. The government should be looking at local hubs which can drive civil society growth in the parts of the country that need it the most, where the infrastructure simply doesn’t exist for charities to solve the problems.
Indeed, a look back at regeneration attempts from previous governments serves as a timely lesson. Investment in the capacity of local civil society is the decisive factor between success and failure. How the government works with charities and community groups will make the difference between a legacy of lasting improvements, and flash in the pan spending which renders levelling up nothing more than an empty slogan.