Today, Boris Johnson gave a speech on his levelling up agenda. While he made the speech from the West Midlands, it was clearly intended for ears in the South East – seeking to calm the nerves of his backbenchers that economic regeneration in the North was not going to be at the expense of Tory voters in the Home Counties.
Among the rhetoric, the Prime Minister discussed the different funds he has, or plans to, make available to towns and communities. When spread thin like jam around the country, it’s clear that many are simply a token gesture – insufficient to meaningfully transform those places hit hardest by austerity.
But instead of being shared out fairly, these funds are subject to a competitive process. Cities, towns and communities are pitched against each other in a race to secure much needed funding – and the decisions on how this funding is allocated lack the transparency needed to reassure us that they are not simply being allocated according to political whim or potential electoral gain.
We believe that this top-down approach to economic regeneration is flawed. It didn’t work in the past, and it won’t work now. Approaches to local economic growth have for too long centred around a model of inward investment – reliant on investment from Whitehall and big business that is just as easily taken away as it was given.
Instead, we need a place-based approach which empowers local councils and communities to create and retain wealth locally. Our work on community wealth building over the past years has sought to provide the tools for local authorities to reorganise their economy.
And at the heart of this is our conviction, borne out time and again in practice by co-operative councillors around the country, that change is best led by the people impacted by it.
That’s why our Unlock The High Street campaign is calling for funding be devolved, so that decisions on town centre transformation are made locally by the people who are impacted, not by distant bureaucrats in Whitehall or politicians in Westminster. Whether it’s the Towns Fund, Levelling Up Fund, UK Shared Prosperity Fund or even today’s new football pitch fund, funding will not result in a fairer economy if spending is a competitive top-down decision.
As Labour & Co-operative Mayor for West Yorkshire Tracy Brabin said recently when she was visited by London Mayor Sadiq Khan, “Leave levelling up to us. Give us the power and the money and we can help… but you can’t do it in Whitehall or Westminster. We have to have the power of our destiny.” Decisions on high street regeneration should be left to those who shop and work there, and the decisions on local economic strategies left to the communities who will benefit from the better jobs and opportunities. Places should be supported to be equal partners, not adversaries.