More campaigners call for co-op role in ‘levelling up’

Responses from Wales Co-operative Centre, CLES and Locality

After a mixed reception for the government’s white paper on ways to ‘level up’ the UK, more organisations have stressed the value of co-op ownership models in addressing inequality.

The government’s plan targets areas such as education, tech and transport in a bid to deliver a fairer economy and help ‘left-behind’ regions by 2030, but critics claim it rehashes existing policy pledges and fails to offer new funds to meet challenges such as climate change.

Now, more voices aligned with the co-op movement have stepped in to the debate, stressing the value of collaborative working in helping communities meet their challenges.

Derek Walker, CEO of Wales Co-operative Centre, welcomed the policy’s stated aim “to make the UK a fairer place where wealth and opportunity is more evenly spread, adding that it offers “plenty of data, detailed analysis and refreshing critiques of why past initiatives have not worked”.

But he warned that the paper contains “scant mention“ of important issues such as progressive taxation and welfare spending, adding that there “is a gap between the reality and the rhetoric” when it comes to funding.

“Levelling up requires significant resources,” wrote Mr Walker. “That is the lesson from elsewhere. But for Wales it looks like there will be less money than before. The Institute of Welsh Affairs estimates Wales will receive less than half of what we used to receive from EU funds. The Welsh government states Wales will lose £1bn by 2024. Wales is being short changed.”

Mr Walker also welcomed the white paper’s discussion of “collaboration between government, councils, business and civil society” but adds: “It is no secret the UK government and the Welsh government are not working together effectively. The voluntary sector is not at the table. This has got to be addressed if we are to avoid the lack of co-ordination and duplication we saw in the recent Community Renewal Fund.”

Collaboration is also vital between Welsh local authorities, the third sector and businesses to put together effective projects, he said. “We need to give businesses, social enterprises and charities the job of leading projects where they have the expertise.”

Meanwhile, the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) – the thinktank which has been playing a leading role in developing co-op-based community wealth building models for local authorities such as Preston, has set six tests for levelling up and says the white paper falls short. 

Its issues with the six tests are:

  • Purpose: “It’s not yet clear how these national ambitions will translate into local delivery which supports opportunities for everyone. There is nothing in the indicators about addressing wealth inequality or poverty, for example.” 
  • Money: “Previously announced levelling up funding is going to the wrong places, with local and combined authorities having to complete endless application forms to Westminster. Further clarity is needed on how funds will be allocated going forward to ensure that the poorest and most deprived areas are given priority.”
  • Jobs: “The ambition set out in the white paper to increase pay, employment and productivity fails to recognise the urgent need to protect the lowest paid and most vulnerable in our jobs markets. Previous government interventions here – such as freeports – have done little to deliver decent jobs to the local people who need them the most. 
  • Ownership: “Levelling up must enable business growth that supports local forms of enterprise, with ownership structures that retain wealth and opportunity for the benefit of local people. Continuing to enable big business to extract money from communities will only continue to drive down living standards and life expectancy.”
  • Devolution: The introduction of new mayoralties is welcome but the success of new devolution arrangements will only be as good as the foundations upon which they are built. Powers and freedoms remain limited to those which enable the attraction and retention of investment, typically from larger global investors. 
  • Local government: The white paper, yet again, fails to acknowledge the hard graft of local authorities in supporting local economies that work for their places. The government must prioritise a clear and stable settlement for local government finance going forward, so as to rebuild the basic foundations for levelling up – including decent public health, social services and planning.”

Sarah Longlands, CEO of CLES, said: “Even with 332 pages to fill out the detail, and after two years of hype, the white paper lacks the focus and finance to get to the root of the problem: an economic system which fails to give people a stake in their local place through, for example, decent work, housing and transport.

“This inequality, made worse by the pandemic, is what is driving down living standards and life expectancy rather than helping people to live good lives. The white paper doesn’t offer a coherent roadmap for economic change but a scattering of special projects which together will do little to alleviate the challenges faced by those who have not only been left behind but kept behind for decades.”

Dr Tom Lloyd Goodwin, associate director of CLES, added: “After ten years of local cuts, capacity to deliver the best outcomes for communities is at an all-time low. You cannot level up from Westminster, or even from a mayoral combined authority. The hard graft of delivering change can only be achieved in council offices, high streets, community meetings and small businesses. But there were few crumbs of comfort for them.”

From Locality – which represents community businesses in the UK – CEO Tony Armstrong said: “This long overdue white paper could be the start of redressing our country’s deep inequalities – but needs community power to drive it forward. For decades the potential which resides in every local community has been broadly overlooked, and power has been centralised. And that is a big part of the reason why there are such huge disparities of wealth, health and wellbeing in different areas of the country.”

Mr Armstrong said the white paper offers “a useful long-term framework” with some positive measures, adding: “Government has listened to many of the ideas put forward by the community sector on issues like community ownership and neighbourhood governance. To be a long term success, this power of community needs to be front and centre of the government’s levelling up strategy.“

This transfer of power and decision making to communities is vital, said Mr Armstrong, if the money spent is to deliver lasting change.

He welcomed specific measures, such as the Strategy for Community Spaces and Relationships. “Over 4,000 publicly owned spaces are sold off every year,” he said, “making it much harder for local people to come together and improve their lives and their areas.

“There are hundreds of fantastic community-owned initiatives which have secured vital spaces for their local area.  We need a coordinated approach to supporting more places to take a lead in local regeneration.”

Mr Armstrong was also pleased by the commitment to decentralising the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, adding that “local control over regeneration funding is vital to ensure communities’ real needs and ambitions are met, so we welcome the direction of travel in the white paper.

“The ‘business as usual’ approach forces bidders to compete against each other and leaves decision-making to distant bodies which simply don’t know or understand the neighbourhoods most in need of levelling up. As funds get decentralised, it’s vital that community organisations are equal partners in the decision-making process. These are the organisations concentrated in the areas most in need, and they know how to target resources to best effect.”

On plans to review the Community Ownership Fund, he said: “The design of the Fund so far has been far too restrictive to support many of the potentially transformative community ownership projects that are out there. So it’s great to see the White Paper’s commitment to learn the lessons from the Fund’s first round, and to enhance options for community ownership. We know there are hundreds of vital community projects are currently excluded, particularly in the neighbourhoods which are the focus of the levelling up agenda.”

Mr Armstrong said plans for a review of neighbourhood governance are also promising. “Until now devolution has not managed to spread out of combined authorities into our neighbourhoods,” he warned. “The plans for a review of neighbourhood governance could start to change that. We believe strong local governance institutions at the neighbourhood level are important to ensure power ‘sticks’ and local people have real control over the things that matter to their places.”