A new ‘Neighbourhoods Unit’ could shift the dial for UK inequality
Matt Leach, Local Trust
Global challenges will provide a backdrop to many of the big decisions that will face us through the 2020s and 2030s – most notably regional conflict, growing climate instability and faltering economic growth. But the UK faces equally pressing questions at a local level.
Quality of life, design and delivery of public services, the shape and limits of the state and how all of this links to issues of identity and connection are critical to how we experience our lives, collectively and individually.
Brought together under the themes of “power and place”, they were the subject of a fascinating workshop hosted by UK 2040 Options and chaired by Demos’ director Polly Curtis, and a subsequent report.
With politics increasingly polarised and both nation and the wider global community facing an endless succession of intractable challenges, attempts to build consensus on the key issues facing us and cross political lines in a search for solutions are both rare and valuable. The UK 2040 Options project falls into the category of initiatives that are both incredibly timely and hugely important.
Seeking to explore two important areas of policy thinking – how we are governed and people’s experiences of life at a neighbourhood level – the workshop examined the case for devolution of power and its limits. It also looked at the growing evidence base highlighting the need for new policy initiatives focused on rebuilding community institutions at a hyperlocal level.
As was noted at the workshop, one of the biggest challenges in developing policy in this space is the extent to which debates around what is often labelled “community power” conflate a number of very different strands of thinking.
On the one hand, there is a very developed debate around issues of devolution, seeking to shake out the best place for state-focused decision-making to sit. This tends to focus on tussles between Whitehall and local government, with the primary argument often being that this would establish conditions for better (or more balanced) economic growth. Alongside this runs a debate over the form of local government, and in particular, the benefits of mayors and combined authorities as both more effective and more accountable models of local governance.
A separate debate focuses on the extent to which local authorities should involve local people in service design and decision-making. Advocates either claim this as a good in itself, or point to ways in which this can improve delivery. Much of this builds on the excellent work of organisations like New Local and its Community Paradigm model.
A final strand of thinking has, until recently, been less well-represented in national policy debates, but is arguably more important to the everyday experiences of people. This is the need to address challenges and inequality at a neighbourhood level, highlighting that these are often as profound as regional differences in outcome.
Drawing on extensive evidence from evaluations of the hugely successful New Deal for Communities programme, and more recent initiatives such as Local Trust’s own Big Local programme, this line of thinking focuses on the need to rebuild and strengthen local community organisations and institutions as a means of driving better outcomes.
One of the primary drivers of outcomes at a local level, even after accounting for relative levels of deprivation, is the strength of neighbourhood-level social fabric, as we have seen in reports such as Demos’ Preventative State. And that – often – the challenges faced by the state are driven by the need to address the social costs arising from the breakdown of these social structures.
The rise of the ‘social communitarians’?
To help make sense of all of this at the workshop, Demos proposed the existence of three broad policy “tribes” seeking to define the policy landscape in this space. The federalists, focused almost exclusively on issues of devolution of power; the mayoralists, largely focused on the transfer of power to individually accountable local leaders at a city level; and the communitarians, largely focused on building/rebuilding grassroots-level civic institutions and perhaps more agnostic about constitutional reform.
This classification of different approaches feels helpful, not least as a means of ensuring that crucial parts of the policy jigsaw are not lost as a result of shared terminology inadvertently concealing very different policy priorities. But there may be value in seeking to distinguish between two distinct strands of thinking within the communitarian camp.
There are those who see community power within the context of further devolution of power from the state – we can call these ‘democratic communitarians’, who in many ways simply reflect a logical extension of the agendas of federalists and mayoralists. There are also the ‘social communitarians’, who would argue that equal priority should be given to building or rebuilding social and civic institutions at a local level as a good in itself.
While the federalist, mayoralist and democratic communitarian camps have been well-represented in recent policy debates, we have seen little focus on neighbourhood-level policy in recent years. Since the Social Exclusion Unit’s report on a national strategy for neighbourhood renewal 25 years ago, we have had little in the way of new initiatives or engagement with neighbourhood-level, community-focused policy interventions since.
With an election likely in 2024, there seems little time left for either party to initiate new debates or come forward with major new initiatives focused on delivering neighbourhood-level change. But the establishment, post-election, of a new Neighbourhoods Unit, which could build on the example of the Social Exclusion Unit and focus on collating evidence and developing policy on rebuilding the social fabric of local communities, would be a major step forward in addressing a significant gap in our policy landscape. Is it time for a return of the social communitarians?