HOW TO MAKE LEVELLING UP WORK FOR EVERYONE - A REVIEW OF THE TOWNS FUND PROCESS
Earlier this month, Rachel White, Senior Planner in our Manchester office spoke in parliament about ‘how to make levelling up work for everyone’. Rachel has been involved with the Towns Fund’s ‘Panel of Brilliant People’ for the last 12 months and their work culminated with a presentation to MPs and ministers to give their recommendations. Here, Rachel shares her thoughts of the experience and gives insight into the Panel’s 9 recommendations.
Being involved with the Panel has been a great experience. I’ve met some interesting people from all different backgrounds across the UK- and we’ve worked together (albeit virtually!) to create 9 tangible recommendations of how to make levelling up work for everyone. The panel was created and facilitated by Arup, the Towns Fund delivery partner and they wanted to hear the voices of young people from different towns and cities across the country. The panel comprised 18 people from Torbay to Darlington and everywhere in between. It included planners, urban designers, teachers, local councillors and students who collectively gave a holistic and contrasting view of their place and what needs to be done to improve them.
Over the course of the year, as a panel, we distilled our thoughts into 3 main themes which we felt were fundamental to ensure levelling up is equitable and appropriate. These were;
Regeneration initiatives must have a place based focus;
Local authorities must have a capacity to deliver their initiatives; and
Participation must be meaningful and representative
Place based focus
As a panel, we were keen to establish what is meant by ‘place’. We spent significant amounts of time sharing experiences and memories of our home towns, what these meant to us and how we feel connected, (or in some instances not) to them. We were adamant of the individualities of place and how this should feed into the levelling up agenda. We established place as having three main components; firstly the location- the physical point on a map; secondly, locale- the amenities, services and provisions and thirdly- link; the connection that individuals have with that place. The panel felt strongly that in order for regeneration and levelling up to really work in the long term, initiatives must take account of the place and offer solutions that are inherently place based. A project rolled out in Southampton would not necessarily have the same success if it was implemented in Skegness.
One of the panellists shared an example of her home town Darlington. She had worked as part of the Towns Fund board to prepare a funding bid. As part of this, they worked closely with local residents to establish what the ‘place’ meant to them and how the Council could ensure that their bid was appropriate for not only the physical location, but also the people who interact with it. Their approach was successful and they have created an upgraded ‘Yards’ which houses local businesses who have all experienced increased footfall- a real tangible benefit of the ensuring that the initiative was specific to the Darlington Yards.
Overall, the panel provided 3 recommendations to ensure that development is place based, these were:
Regeneration should consider the needs of the local community in the heart of decision making
Decision makers should take a holistic approach to the area with a balanced view of health, infrastructure, economics and culture
We should focus on the perception of place achieved by a stronger local communication
Capacity to deliver
One thing that was evident through our discussions, was that different local authorities often have differing capacities to implement change. In some instances, they were willing and able to make decisions, whereas in other areas, they were beholden to wider, more strategic agendas which often held up decision making processes. In addition, differing areas experience different capabilities to implement change as a result of income and or skills deprivation, productivity, impact of external shocks, investment opportunities and their alignment to wider government initiatives.
In the context of the Towns Fund programme, evidence collated by the panel found that there was the greatest disparity between ‘towns recommended for funding’ and towns selected in the north east of England, and the lowest difference in the south east. This means that towns in the south east were more likely to be awarded funding compared to their northern counter parts.
The panel concluded that in order for towns to learn from the bid process, and to ensure equitable application processes in future, there must be a level playing field in terms of information available to applicants.
Furthermore, evidence collated by the panel suggested that whilst a capital investment into towns was beneficial, often towns don’t have the means or capacity to manage the lump sum of equity and instead, a steady stream of revenue would be more appropriate.
This would allow for towns to predict and monitor spending on the basis of a steady cash flow which the panel found to be a more sustainable approach to funding.
The 3 recommendations put forward by the panel in regards to capacity to deliver were;
The government should increase the overall proportion of revenue funding to local authorities;
A set of indicators should be developed which tracks comparative success
There should be better access to higher quality information
Participation and Representation
It was clear from the research undertaken that the capacity of local towns to deliver is varied and disparate across the country. If we get to a point where every town has the same capacities, support and knowledge, how do we ensure that the decisions they make really represent their communities. We are acutely aware of the disparities within our communities and must ensure that decision making works for everyone.
As a collective, we all shared experiences of discussions that have been dominated by a particular ideology or vocal group. For those working in the planning and development sector, we spend a significant amount of time navigating (often negative!) comments, that whilst numerous, don’t necessarily represent the global view. Whilst it is easy to be blindsided by the noise, the panel concluded that we must work harder to ensure that those silenced, either by a lack of confidence, skills or education, feel empowered and able to participate in these vital conversations.
The panel felt passionately about creating environments that work for everyone. In order to achieve this, we must first understand what people want to ensure that the actions made really work and are assimilated into the local community. We must go above and beyond current actions to ensure that decisions made at the local level really are representative. We had extensive discussions around who sits on boards, how they are elected, how do they consult local people and how do they implement the needs of their communities into decision making.
As a panel, we collated a number of experiences about participation in planning, development and regeneration and used these to form the following recommendations;
Towns Fund Boards (or any other board/panel/committee representing a community) must reflect and represent the community they act for;
Participation should be meaningful and appropraite and not just a box ticking exercise. The focus should be on an appropriate mix of consultation methods, both digital and analogue, to reach all parts of the community;
Community engagement should start with education and form a culture so people feel empowered to participate in these vital discussions.