No one knows what “levelling up” is, but now Boris Johnson wants 10 more years to do it. A white paper on the grand strategy is promised but, in the meantime, take a good look at this week’s report from Onward – a centre-right thinktank co-founded by Neil O’Brien, the prime minister’s levelling-up adviser, heading a taskforce of 60 Tory MPs.
Here’s the surprise: examining 50 years of regeneration programmes, they found that a New Labour-era policy, the New Deal for Communities (NDCs), was the most successful. Its impact, they suggested, had been seriously underestimated, when it should be a model.
It will come as good but bitter news for all who toiled for a decade to make NDCs work, only to see them blown away by post-2010 austerity, abandoning the valiant community volunteers extolled in this report.
In 2000, the millennium era of exuberant social optimism, Labour launched an extraordinary experiment. Identifying the country’s 2,000 most deprived estates, just 39 were chosen as a regeneration testbed. NDCs focused on lifting people’s quality of life by giving them the power and the money. Each neighbourhood received a 10-year budget of £56m – electing their own resident-dominated boards.
The targets set were eye-wateringly ambitious: 100% of housing was to be repaired to “decent” standard, crime and unemployment to fall to national averages, child and adult education qualifications to reach the national average, along with health levels. At least 85% of residents were to feel “satisfied with their area” and three-quarters “involved” in their community.
These overexpectations were monitored by Ipsos Mori, with a mass of data collected. Over that decade I closely followed the NDC on Lambeth’s dilapidated and crime-ridden Clapham Park estate in south London with its 7,300 inhabitants. I lived there for a few months writing my book Hard Work, exploring life on the minimum wage. The residents’ board let me sit in on meetings to watch their progress.
At first there was no “community”, no organisations to build on, only a handful of volunteers who hired some professionals. But what galvanised people was the cheque placed in their own hands to follow their own priorities. They created 64 projects, from debt advice, job support and training, arts and sports for children, clubs for the lonely, a community centre, an annual festival, a bike repair training scheme, family outings – and undertook massive housing repairs. New wardens walked the streets and dozens of crack houses were shut down.
“Community” isn’t easy (ask Jackie Weaver) and there were rows: their first elected chair was ejected. “More Afghanistan than Ambridge,” the next chair whispered to me once – the admirable Donna Charmaine Henry, a dental nurse, born in St Kitts, who had previously shunned neighbours, fearing the estate’s drug dealers and sex workers. She had no idea what burden she would take on, her flat stacked with files, but she helped keep it together. Sadly she died suddenly last year: when we last met she was distraught at losing so much ground gained after 2010. How she would sigh over this Onward report.
Clapham Park results were good by 2010: 74% of people were now “satisfied” with the estate, only 20% feeling unsafe. A 10th fewer lived on very low incomes, 6% more had qualifications, with 3% more in work. These figures never captured the high turnover of half the residents in that decade: some with jobs moved out, replaced with frail people or newly arrived, non-English speakers, while the right-to-buy disaster saw flats bought by landlords and packed with itinerant people.
Nonetheless, Onward’s study of all 39 NDCs finds 77% saw deprivation fall relative to the national average. Where communities were most involved, deprivation fell fastest. Those “satisfied with their area” rose by 18 percentage points, employment up by 10 points. That’s remarkable.
But here’s what happened next. “Interestingly” the report notes, “many areas saw their improvement in the Index of Multiple Deprivation start to fall back after 2010.” That “interestingly” is Onward’s political caution: more than half the NDCs that caught up to their local authority average fell back again. Nor does this report take enough account of how NDCs benefited from services improving all around them: Clapham Park opened two Sure Start children’s centres, the NHS was getting 7% more a year, while school results rose with a boost to teacher numbers and spending. Post-2010 cuts to public services and benefits meant few NDCs sustained their gains.
A thinktank associated with the Tories, Onward is perhaps tactfully silent on that. In 70 pages there’s no mention, not one, of universal credit or its imminent £20 cut. No amount of good community organising can overcome that damage, with worse austerity to come.
With every emblem of Labour social policy grubbed up in 2010, a revival of what worked is welcome. Learning from NDCs, Onward’s director, Will Tanner, exhorts the government to “use neighbourhoods – the most effective organising unit in society – to drive levelling up in the places that need it most”. The report calls for (unspecified) funds to go directly to local organisations, though Onward’s flavour is more Cameron’s “big society”, Edmund Burke’s little platoons of volunteers or Michael Oakeshott’s anti-statist civilians, than Labour social democracy. But it’s no use pretending local heroes, like Donna Charmaine Henry, can move social mountains unless backed by strong social and public services.
So far Johnson’s centralised, pork-barrel view of regeneration has considered Tory seats, regardless of need. So far he prefers eye-catching infrastructure, not daily good done by a nursery teacher, district nurse, debt adviser, carer, further education instructor – and, yes, a well-supported volunteer. The quiet work done by those services is hard to measure and invisible to TV cameras. Do you think that’s what Boris Johnson intends?